Real Estate

Miami Sues Coconut Grove Landlords for Renting Moldy, Sewage-Filled Apartments

For the past seven years, Stephanie Coats and her four children have lived in a one-bedroom apartment on Hibiscus Street in the West Grove, just four blocks east of bustling CocoWalk. But their building, constructed in 1948, stands in stark contrast to the Starbucks and Gap stores at the upscale shopping center.

Parts of the roof have caved in, creating a breeding ground for mold. Raw sewage, including pieces of toilet paper and human waste, sometimes flow in front of the tenants' front doors. Recently, the landlord cut the power to the outdoor lights, cloaking the building in dangerous darkness after sunset.

But rent is only $400 a month, an almost unheard-of bargain in Miami, where residents in nearly every stretch of the city are being squeezed by rising housing costs. It's about all Coats, who is unemployed, can afford to pay each month. "The rent is just getting ridiculous," she says. 

Now the City of Miami is taking legal action against the owners, who — under five corporation names — have 12 properties in Coconut Grove, all of which, the city says, are in various states of disrepair and code violation. The city is fighting to force the owners to pay to relocate all of the tenants to clean and safe apartments they can afford — and many fear they could become homeless if no alternative is provided.

The owners — Orlando Benitez Jr., attorney Julio Marrero, his mother Rosa Marrero, and Phillip Muskat — are locked in a legal dispute about selling the properties. A potential buyer has offered to purchase the land, which is worth millions of dollars. If the city's argument is successful, a judge could order the owners to use a portion of their profits to relocate their renters.

"It is imperative that the quality of life of our residents be protected," says city attorney Victoria Méndez. 

The owners point fingers at one another when asked how the properties have deteriorated so badly. Julio Marrero tells New Times he's open to the arrangement suggested by the city for relocating the renters but says he first needs to resolve the dispute with Benitez about selling the property. He says the poor living conditions at the properties are a result of expensive in-fighting with Benitez over the years.

"It leaves very little money to fix the buildings," he says.

Eddy Leal, an attorney for Benitez, says Benitez has not been involved in the day-to-day management of the properties and their upkeep. In a recent lawsuit, Leal accuses Marrero of repeatedly railroading Benitez in business decisions. 
Last week, City Commissioner Ken Russell and a group of community volunteers canvassed a stretch of Grand Avenue where most of the apartments are located, knocking on doors to encourage tenants in more than 150 units to begin looking for a new place to live. Russell's office created a list of phone numbers for affordable rental projects in hopes that tenants will place themselves on various waiting lists.

"It's not the ideal solution, but this is all we've got," Russell says.

He's hoping longtime residents won't have to leave the neighborhood. "I need a preservation of the community, that if someone wants to stay here, they can," he says.

Some community leaders, however, think the city should have intervened earlier. Jihad Rashid, president of the nearby Collaborative Development Corporation, a group that works to expand affordable housing opportunities, says tenants of the 12 buildings have been living in substandard conditions for years.

"It's like a bad skin condition," Rashid says. "We've been dealing with this for a decade."

Kathy Parks, another volunteer who helped knock on doors, expressed concern that residents would have to throw out anything they own that can't be washed, for fear of infesting a new apartment with mold. Parks is assisting one family in trying to find another place to live.

"There's rats crawling all over these kids," she says. "It's unacceptable to me as a mother to have them live there."

Last month, Coats and her neighbors found notices on their doors asking them to vacate by August 1, which apparently wasn't enforced. The landlord offered $400 to anyone who would leave voluntarily, an offer Coats says only a couple of people took him up on because there aren't many places they can afford to go. 

Their latest concern is eviction. Earlier this month, Guerby Noel, an attorney with Legal Services of Miami, filed papers asking the judge to prevent the landlord from evicting residents in the Hibiscus Street building where Coats lives. But the motion was denied.

"These are not people trying to skate by. They're elderly; they're disabled," Noel tells New Times. "This is the situation that occurs in pretty much all of the minority communities in Miami, where the landlords just sort of give up on the property and then sell it and wash their hands of it, without a care for the tenants. It just comes down to the tenants being forgotten."

The affected properties are 3401 Grand Ave., 3440 Grand Ave., 3535 Grand Ave., 3475 Grand Ave., 3301 Grand Ave., 3395 Grand Ave., 3375 Grand Ave., 3355 Grand Ave., 3441 Grand Ave., 3410 Hibiscus St., 3400 Florida Ave., and 3412 Florida Ave. Until further notice, Noel says, he's been asked to represent only those who live at the Hibiscus Street building. 
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Jessica Lipscomb is news editor of Miami New Times and an enthusiastic Florida Woman. Born and raised in Orlando, she has been a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists.
Contact: Jessica Lipscomb