Totally Rent Out of Shape

For most of the past decade, South Beach was anything but a Miami Vice pastel playground for the young and restless. From Alton Road to Collins Avenue, the hunched-over elderly lined the porches of dilapidated residential hotels and apartment buildings. Landlords allowed Art Deco edifices to decay with little regard for their aging tenants. Proximity to doctors' offices and pharmacies was a far more popular topic of conversation among residents than was proliferation of nightclubs and glitzy eateries. Rents were low, parking plentiful.

Not so today, to the point of cliche. The average age of Beach residents has plunged, as evidenced by U.S. Census data. In 1980, 49 percent of the island's population was older than 65; the median age was 65.3. Ten years later, the numbers had plummeted to 29 percent and 49.5. In the past three to four years, rents have increased by as much as 50 percent. Apartments are being converted to condominiums. South Beach has become a yuppie paradise for professionals willing to pay more to be near the sand, sea, and nightlife. But with this willingness to pay higher rents has come something else: a demand for better accountability from landlords. Gone are the days when building owners could let plumbing back up, electrical wiring crumble to dust, appliances remain broken for months.

Witness Morton Towers, scene of a renters' revolt last week. Led by lone picketer Andrew Hill, who says Morton Towers refused to release his $920 security deposit because of a spot on the carpet of the studio apartment he shared with a roommate, the revolution progressed from a solo placard-waving protest to a forum for myriad complaints that ranged from mildew in apartments to the withholding of deposits. The uprising ended with the formation of a tenants' association that now will meet with Morton managers and air grievances. "I guess we shocked them," surmises Hill, a 28-year-old Australian television producer who now lives at the new Biscayne View Apartments in downtown Miami. "The problem is that for years they have been pushing residents around and telling them, `If you don't like it, sue us.' All most of these people wanted was to have their gripes heard. They don't want to go to court."

Long a bastion of the elderly, in recent years the 1277-unit complex perched on Biscayne Bay at 1500 Bay Road has been a microcosm of the burgeoning Beach. No longer are the lobbies of the two fourteen-story buildings gathering grounds for elderly tenants. During the past four years, as rents steadily increased, many aging renters had to look elsewhere for housing. In the fall of 1990, UM art history professor Paula Harper, a resident since 1987, wrote a letter to Richard Morton, the supervising managing partner of Morton Towers, complaining about what she saw as blatant ageism. "The place had the feeling of emotional carnage and desperation," she recalls. "I would see these old people with their dogs and sticks of furniture being put out. It was just heartbreaking."

Morton never responded personally, but his answer came through loud and clear. This past October, Harper came home to find a notice on her apartment door. Her lease, the notice said, would not be renewed when it expired December 1. "I was told by mutual friends that he was incensed that I criticized him," Harper says. "It was made clear to me by the rental office that the rent increases were intentional and were meant to clear out the unsightly old people as part of a plan to redo the image of the place."

Morton is on vacation in Aspen and could not be reached for comment. However, Leonard Abrams, the general manager of Morton Towers, emphatically disagrees with Harper's account. "We have a policy of nondiscrimination in every and all respects," he insists. "These buildings may reflect what is happening all over the Beach, but it is by no means intentional."

Abrams does agree, however, that Morton Towers's demographics have changed, especially with regard to race. And as evidenced by last week's rebellion, Morton's management might be getting more than they bargained for; the new, younger tenants aren't nearly as docile as the old. Andrew Hill says there were problems from the moment he first looked at his studio in July of last year, starting with a filthy apartment and continuing with maintenance problems throughout the year. "And there was just this attitude," Hill says, "that they didn't care about our problems."

Days after he moved out last month, Hill says, Morton Towers notified him that his security deposit was being held because the entire carpet had to be replaced. "There was one spot," he says. "We shampooed it and everything, but they wanted to replace the whole thing for one spot. They wouldn't even discuss if we could go back and try to clean it or anything. They just said, `If you don't like it, take us to court.'" (Building manager Abrams says he has no comment about Hill's case.)

In response, Hill went to the hardware store, bought some cardboard, scrawled "Don't get ripped off by Morton Towers" on one side, "Don't rent from Morton Towers" on the other, and parked himself on Bay Road in front of the buildings on July 3. Other residents, he says, came out to join him or showed support by waving, calling out, honking their horns as they drove in or out of the building. One woman who claimed she hadn't had a refrigerator since March made her own "No Maintenance Morton" sign. Hill says he heard all kinds of horror stories -- water damage from leaking air-conditioning units, appliances going unrepaired, security deposits withheld. (Jerome Sico, a resident since June 1991 and one of the most vocal protesters, sued Morton Towers last year for estimated $700 in water damage to books in his closet caused by a leaking air-conditioning unit. Morton Towers settled this past spring for $450.)

Despite several visits by police officers and the constant presence of security guards who the protesters say threatened them with arrest, a half-dozen supporters joined Hill during the next two days. Together, they formed a tenants' association and began circulating a petition asking that building managers sit down with them and listen to their gripes. By the end of July 4, the protesters had collected about 120 signatures, Hill says, adding that few elderly residents were willing to sign, for fear of retribution. Finally, he says, management gave in, agreeing to meet with the tenants group weekly to discuss grievances.

Abrams, the building manager, would not confirm that, saying only that he had agreed to let Morton's chief engineer meet with the group. He would not say if that means one meeting or a weekly get-together. "All I can say is we scrupulously conform to all the laws, rules, and regulations required in all cases with regard to security deposits," he says. "I think you have to remember that we're talking about six people as compared to nearly 3000 that live here. With that many people, we're not going to be able to answer every maintenance call within an hour, but we try to do our best."

Managers of other South Beach rental properties see the problems experienced at Morton Towers as a sign of things to come. "More and more younger people want to move to the Beach, and the pressure is increasing," says Claudio Castilla, property manager for Chrisken Management, which owns a whopping 400 rental units in the Art Deco district. In the past three to four years, Castilla says, the average age of Chrisken tenants has dropped from somewhere in the sixties to the mid- to upper-thirties.

Most tenants of Vintage Properties, another large rental company on South Beach, are between twenty and thirty, says Eddie Carvin, the company's rental agent. In terms of buyers, Bret Taylor, of South Beach Realty, echoes both Castilla and Carvin: 90 percent of his clients are younger than 35. Many apartments are now being converted to condos, he says, a trend realtors expect to continue.

Rental rates, in the meantime, have ascended fifteen to 25 percent during the past three to four years, say Castilla and Carvin; in some cases they have doubled. "There are more people wanting to come to live here than there are available good units," Castilla says. "What we're seeing is a tradeoff. The younger professionals are willing to pay the higher rents because they get a renovated apartment in the middle of the Beach atmosphere. But in return they expect better service. They're not going to pay these rates for a building that's falling apart.

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William Labbee