In Miami-Dade County, 21 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Renters often hold onto an affordable apartment even if conditions are deplorable.
"It's not enough affordable housing,” says Nathaniel Wilcox, president of People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality or PULSE. “It’s not enough in the low-to-moderate income areas to accommodate people who are super-low in their income.”
The working poor, he says, are stuck in buildings like 6040 NW 12 Ave., where tenants say their New Jersey-based landlord Denise Vaknin is a slumlord who blatantly ignores city and county codes.
- Vaknin owes the City of Miami $2.4 million in unpaid code, building and fire violations through six different apartment management companies.
- Miami Beverly LLC, Vaknin’s company that manages 6040 NW 12 Ave., does not have the required state license to operate.
- A recent state inspection found mold-like substances in most of the apartments at 6040 NW 12 Ave. The report also documented live roaches, doors in disrepair and damaged electric wires.
- City inspections found required fire suppression equipment are non existent on the property.
"We ain't wealthy"
At night, Joyce McGill props a kitchen chair against her Liberty City apartment door.
The mismatched gold and silver locks are a mere suggestion to keep out; the door’s wood frame is falling apart. One strong shove will send the door flying open.
“That’s the entrance into your domain. You're supposed to be safe inside your house, where you lay your head down,” says McGill.
McGill, 56, knows her small black chair with the peeling paint is an inadequate safety measure, but before she goes to bed in one of Miami’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods, it gives her some peace of mind.
McGill keeps her small apartment tidy. Black-and-white photos of her mother adorn the walls, her bed is expertly made with floral sheets and dishes are neatly stacked next to the kitchen sink.
She works part-time at a Checkers restaurant, where she earns $7.90 an hour. After she pays the $500-a-month rent, she says she can barely afford to put gas in her car or buy groceries.
“We ain’t wealthy,” she says. “You live paycheck by paycheck.”
Five months ago, McGill says she complained about the deteriorating door frame to the apartments’ management company.
The property manager promised to fix it, but no one ever showed up.
“It don’t make no sense, all the damn slumlords around here,” she says.
When she turns on her bathroom light, the fire alarm dangling from exposed wires screeches.
On rainy days, McGill’s boyfriend Pirsell Cooper places a bucket on the left upper corner of their mattress and one close to the lower right corner to catch a steady downpour coming from the ceiling.
During heavy storms, the couple sleeps on the living room couch just in case the leaking bedroom ceiling gives in.
"Fed Up With the Bulls--t"
Wayne Caroll’s apartment is infested with roaches. Other critters frequent freely through broken window screens.
The bugs, he says, are the least of his worries in the one-bedroom apartment he shares with his three nephews.
The doorless bathroom has no running water or functioning toilet.
Caroll and his nephews shower once a day at his mother’s apartment nearby. The two-block late-afternoon walk past wilted teddy bears that serve as a place marker for where someone was murdered is the best part of his day.
“It’s peaceful because we’re getting out of a sh--ty environment and going to something more peaceful, more comfortable.”
Back at his apartment, Caroll keeps a close eye on the boys before they turn in for the night, in case they sneak and use the toilet. If he doesn’t, he knows he’ll be up late cleaning the overflowed water.
Caroll instructs his nephews to relieve themselves on a littered stretch of grass behind the apartment, where he also goes when nature calls.
Six-year-old T.J. admits he ignores his uncle’s rule sometimes and uses the toilet.
“All we do is go in the bathroom and use it and we come out without flushing it,” he says.
Carroll works construction and labor jobs. He says he’s trying to save enough money to move out.
“It hurts like hell because I have my nephews and them here,” he says. “I’m just fed with the bulls--t.”
"Fighting For Respect"
On Jan. 15, chunks of drywall rained down on Gaynesha William’s 16-year-old only son in the middle of the night as he slept in his bedroom.
The day before the ceiling caved in, she says she called the apartment management company, as she did on most rainy days to complain that when it rained outside, it also rained inside Nathanael Mars’ room.
Hours later, the ceiling fell. Mars dislocated his neck. Workers came in and patched up the hole above his bed.
Eleven months later, Mars sleeps on the living room sofa. It still rains inside his room in the same spot where the ceiling caved in.
Mars is a straight-A student at Miami Northwestern Senior High, Williams says. She wants to reward him with a new bedroom set, but she knows it’ll be ruined by water damage.
Williams, 35, says she knows she is what most people would consider poor. She’s a single mom who collects a disability check every month -- her only source of income. Her son’s father was murdered in Little Haiti in 2007. Mars was 9 years old.
But being poor, Williams says, doesn’t mean she should have to use an umbrella inside her apartment when it’s raining.
“We are still human beings. We are still people,” she says. “We are entitled to live with a peace of mind. We are entitled to receive respect. You cannot have us living any type of way.”
Williams is a fiercely religious woman. After the ceiling rained down on her son, she says she asked God what to do about her her New Jersey-based slumlord.
“God told me to fight him. You know why? I need to stand for all of us,” says Williams. “Some people are scared to fight him, but I’m not scared. I’m going to fight him till the end.”
Williams became an activist in the complex. She documents her own substandard living conditions and those of her fellow tenants:
Leaky apartments sprout mushroom out of the walls.
Brown fecal matter seeps from some ceilings when upstairs tenants flush the toilet.
Bathrooms are devoid of tubs or running water.
Williams says her outspokenness has led to retaliatory evictions. The landlord, she says, wants Williams to mind her business. Williams is well known for accompanying other tenants at eviction hearings to testify about their living conditions, or for moral support.
So far, she’s beat two evictions in court.
She says a woman with the management company offered her free rent for a few months. In exchange, she wanted Williams to shut up. Williams says she turned down the offer.
“Something needs to be done and I won’t stop fighting,” she says. “ I’m not going to stop fighting."