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After Surfside, Miami changes rules to fast-track demolition. Affordable housing is in the crosshairs

Narcisa Torres.JPG
Daniel Rivero
Narcisa Torres has lived in her low-income apartment in Little Havana since 2002. The owners of the 48-unit building have sued the city to prevent an impending demolition order. The 86-year-old receives Section 8 benefits and doubts a demolition will happen, but that if it does someone will have to find new housing for her that accepts Section 8.

Aging buildings across Miami appear to be increasingly targeted by demolition orders - among these are some of the last bastions of affordable housing. Some compare the new demolition policy to a totalitarian government, while others also point out the city's coffers could stand to benefit from it. WLRN's Daniel Rivero investigates.

The worst place to find yourself on a Friday in the city of Miami is at City Hall.

Every Friday morning at 9:00 a.m., a packed crowd gathers before the Unsafe Structures Panel at City Hall to hear ultimatums about their properties. Fix the properties quickly, the panel members and city officials say. Or else.

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In March of this year, the city quietly shifted its policy on buildings that have been declared unsafe: If stringent deadlines are not met, the city is ordering the properties to be demolished, regardless if the violation is a life-safety issue or not.

In the past, city-ordered demolitions were relatively rare. But WLRN's reporting shows that the Unsafe Structures Panel and the city administration are moving to demolish older properties with increasing aggressiveness after the collapse of the Champlain Towers South building in Surfside last year, which left 98 dead.

Attorneys, activists and even some Miami-Dade County judges have stressed that new city policies and assertiveness from the Unsafe Structures Panel (USP) threaten to make the housing affordability crisis in Miami – already widely considered the most unaffordable housing market in the nation – worse.

In the long term, advocates warn that the new demolition policy could bring about a "mass displacement" of residents from low-income areas.

Before the Surfside condo collapse, the USP meetings were held monthly. Only about 30 to 40 cases were heard. The Unsafe Structures Panel now meets every Friday, with up to 50 properties discussed per meeting.

Unsafe Structures panel photo.jpg
Daniel Rivero
At a City of Miami Unsafe Structures Panel meeting in early November, City Hall was a full house.

Agendas for the panel meetings are not published on the city website, although an infrequently updated monthly list of properties facing the panel is published.

Several sources for this story did not want to be quoted on the record. People close to the City of Miami administration said that they fear retribution from the city if they spoke publicly about the topic. Property owners told WLRN they fear speaking out will work against them, since their properties are the ones being targeted. Multiple attorneys told WLRN that they could not speak about the topic without authorization from their clients, but that they are alarmed at the behavior of the USP and the city administration.

WLRN has identified dozens of ongoing lawsuits that have recently been filed between property owners and the City of Miami over attempts to demolish their properties. Every week, more lawsuits to stop pending demolitions of residential properties are being filed.

“The way it was before, you could work with the city to update the property and make the changes that they’re asking for,” said one attorney who did not want to be quoted by name. “But now the timelines they’re asking for are not realistic, and they’re not working with you. If you miss a deadline by even a day, they’re ordering demolition.”

“Basically from what I see, they’re coming after Northwest Miami and Little Havana,” said the attorney.

The conviction that the city has ramped up city-ordered demolitions in the wake of the Surfside collapse is reflected in the sheer number of staff dedicated to unsafe structures in the city.

In 2019, only seven people were employed in the unsafe structures division of the Miami Building Department, according to organizational charts obtained by WLRN. By 2022 the section had a total of 23 filled positions and eight vacancies, more than tripling its dedicated staff.

The City of Miami administration acknowledges that its policy was changed this year to more quickly move to demolish properties that do not meet strict deadlines. WLRN has asked for a written copy of this policy change, but the city has not responded.

Officials deny that the policy change has actually resulted in more demolitions taking place; so far in 2022, a total of 48 buildings have been demolished by city order, including 30 residential properties. In 2019, 52 buildings were demolished by order of the city.

Yet the number of actual demolitions does not reflect the number of buildings that have been ordered demolished, or how those orders are impacting property owners, tenants and business owners. Nor does it reflect the sheer number of lawsuits being filed in county court against the city to block impending demolitions — lawsuits that are mounting by the day.

On those counts, sources tell WLRN, a dramatic shift has taken hold at the City of Miami.

City ordered demolitions since Surfside collapse.png
City of Miami data
Each dot represents a property for which the City of Miami has ordered a demolition after the Surfside condo collapse, for which a demolition permit has been issued. Most of the properties are residential. The dots do not reflect properties that have been ordered demolished, but for which a permit has not been issued.

Many properties not at risk of collapse

Many of the properties that have been ordered demolished are not targeted because they are at immediate risk of falling down, records show. Often it’s related to minor code violations at aging properties.

A restaurant on NW 7th Street in Little Havana was demolished on orders by the city in late October, even though it had its 40-year recertification completed in 2019. The name of the demolition company that did the work: Built To Last Construction.

A section of the historic hotel in Little Havana – the Tower Hotel – was ordered demolished even though it got its 40-year recertification last year. A 20 unit low-income building on SW 12th Avenue in Little Havana was ordered demolished by the city, even after property owners put in a new roof in 2021 and did other maintenance work.

The city said property owners did not move quickly enough to address plumbing issues and that they dragged their feet when it came to legalizing internal renovations that were being done without a permit. That building had its 50-year recertification completed in 2015.

The argument put forth by attorney Michael Green to stop demolition of the 20-unit building was that the city made an internal change of policy to demolish buildings that breach permitting and inspection deadlines — but that the city never made anyone aware of those changes.

“There's been a change in policy without notice,” said Green, according to a court transcript of a July hearing. “It's amazing that when it comes to the city, if they miss a deadline or don't respond, that's okay, but when a property owner trying to come into compliance doesn't, they want the building demolished.”

Under oath, Rene Diaz, the chief of Unsafe Structures at the City of Miami, acknowledged a change of policy was made in March of 2022. But at the time he was unable to direct the court to where that policy was written down.

“This is not some policy change that affects the good actors. It may affect a bad actor like we have in this case, but it's not going to affect the people who are in good faith moving forward and complying,” Rachel Dooley, the city’s attorney for the Unsafe Structures Panel, argued in the hearing. “They're the one that created the problem. They're the one that wants to try to get out of it.”

Miami-Dade Judge Lourdes Simon made a temporary ruling against the city’s efforts to demolish the 20-unit building in July, stressing that the demolition would make South Florida’s affordable housing crisis worse.

Due to new zoning restrictions that were not in place when the 1935 building was built, only six units could be built on the property. Those new units would not likely serve low-income residents, she wrote, “resulting in a loss of 20 low-income residential units in Little Havana.”

When it comes to the city, if they miss a deadline or don't respond, that's okay, but when a property owner trying to come into compliance doesn't, they want the building demolished
Attorney Michael Green.

Some county judges have preliminarily ruled against the city in these cases, though they are ongoing. In one case, that of 1121 NW 32nd Street, the case was dismissed and a demolition order nullified, after the city attorney’s office did not respond to the lawsuit. Property owners in that case shared expenditures in a complaint against the city showing that they put $310,000 into repairing the property since 2020.

In other cases, Miami-Dade judges have allowed demolitions to move forward, citing a lack of jurisdiction to hear the cases.

City of Miami code specifies that for a property to be demolished by city order, the needed repairs must equal 50 percent or more of the building’s total value.

“But what’s happening is that now the city is stretching that definition as far as it possibly can, way past what I think any rational or logical person would think is appropriate,” a Little Havana property owner whose multi-family residential property is facing imminent demolition told WLRN.

“We’re talking about buildings that have issues here and there. But if you miss that deadline, they’re trying to destroy your property.”

Werner Nieves works with homeowners and contractors to get permits to do work on their properties. He is what is known as a “permit runner” in the City of Miami – someone whose job it is to help property owners navigate the hair pulling labyrinth of the permitting process.

Outside a recent USP meeting, Nieves said much of what is happening in Miami is a question of the left hand of the city government not knowing what the right hand is doing. When hard deadlines are at play, it is a recipe for disaster.

“The big issue is that in order to get a permit, the city can take a lot of days, it’s a very long process. It can take several months to get a permit, even up to a year just to get a permit. It’s not aligned with reality,” he said.

Nieves has seen it firsthand when attending the meetings and in speaking to other people in the industry. When someone misses a key deadline for obvious reasons, the city has started to order the buildings demolished.

“It’s gonna add up to the housing problem that we have now here in Miami. You know, the rents are skyrocketing, you cannot find a rent very easy, and now we’re gonna have more people in need of housing," he said.

"It’s gonna be even worse, and that’s gonna increase even more the rent prices. The city really needs to step back a little bit and think deeper into the situation and really find a solution without making it worse.”

48 unit building.JPG
Daniel Rivero
Wwners of the 48-unit low-income housing building at 138 and 142 NW 15th Ave have sued the City of Miami to prevent an imminent demolition order. The owners argue the city has made it impossible to comply with deadlines for addressing alleged issues at the property, putting them in violation of a city order. Demolition is the next step.

Impact on affordable housing

Advocates have long stressed that a key pillar of addressing the affordability and housing crisis in South Florida has to be protecting and preserving aging properties. These properties are naturally more affordable than new constructions, and often they were built with higher density than what zoning regulations currently allow.

This is what has kept segments of Little Havana and other neighborhoods so affordable for so many years.

The fact that the city is aggressively targeting older, more affordable housing stock for demolition is alarming, said Annie Lord, the executive director of Miami Homes For All, a housing advocacy group.

“This is not the way that Miami Homes For All would like to see the city engaging in, both in ensuring that structures are safe, and making sure that we don’t have a mass displacement of lower income people from historically lower income neighborhoods,” said Lord.

“I would hope that the city would be trying to work against forces of displacement and provide programs that would help to maintain affordability and preserve affordable housing instead of adding and accelerating displacement forces.”

“This is really unusual and confusing to me,” she added.

One of the low-income buildings in the crosshairs of the USP is a 48-unit property in the shadows of Marlins Stadium in Little Havana. The building at 138 NW 15th Avenue is part of a Section 8 rehabilitation program in Miami-Dade County. Only about 2,097 units in 48 locations receive this benefit, in which the government subsidizes rent for low-income residents.

The building completed its 40-50-year recertification in 2016 and did so again this year, after the city found code violations on the property for plumbing issues, “broken and unsecure [sic] windows” in the hallways, and non-level floors in the hallways.

They can’t just throw you out onto the streets here. We’re a democratic country, don’t forget it. That's very important. When I came here, I came to live in a democratic country. I lived in Cuba
Narcisa Torres, 86, whose Little Havana building is in danger of a demolition oder.

In a lawsuit against the city, filed in late October, the property owners argue that the city has not been forthcoming about what exact repairs need to be done, and that the city has a “hold” on issuing any permits to fix pending issues on the property. That means the property is considered in violation of an unsafe structures order and is expecting a pending demolition under the new policy.

The lawsuit against the city is an attempt from property owners to prevent it from being demolished.

“I have my doubts that it will happen. But even if it did, they’d have to find somewhere else for me to live,” said Narcisa Torres, an 86-year-old who has lived in the 48-unit building since 2002.

Torres receives Section 8 benefits and pays very little out of pocket for the one-bedroom apartment she jokes is her “palace.”

“They can’t just throw you out onto the streets here. We’re a democratic country, don’t forget it. That's very important. When I came here, I came to live in a democratic country. I lived in Cuba,” said Torres.

Other residents are not as optimistic. Several people WLRN spoke to liked the city government to a "mafia" or a totalitarian government, hell-bent on seizing and destroying their properties.

"The lack of due process is where people love to scream 'Communism! They're gonna take our properties, tear it down without any due process.' And that's why they make the connection," said Denise Galvez Turros, a business owner, conservative activist and member of Miami's Historic and Environmental Preservation Board.

"They're Cubans who came — many of them got their properties taken away and their businesses taken away and now they're fearing for the same thing in the city of Miami. Like, the irony."

The city administration notes that property owners can now formally request a time extension to avoid a demolition before a deadline on their property runs out. But a source told WLRN they were never necessary before because enforcement of paper deadlines was more relaxed and knocking down a property was only a last resort for buildings that were an imminent threat to the public.

Not anymore.

Tower Theater.JPG
Daniel Rivero
The City of Miami said in a letter dated on April 22, 2022 that it would soon demolish at least a portion of the Tower Hotel, located on SW 7th St in Little Havana.

More demolitions, more opportunities

For Galvez Turros, the reason the city has become so aggressive is straightforward: The city collects fees for new construction. More demolitions means more opportunities for new construction, especially for large scale projects.

"It’s easier for them to demolish a property, sell it to a developer, let’s say a developer or a builder, get those impact fees, reassess the property for taxes. So – it’s a moneymaker for them," said Turros. "I’m starting to believe it’s by design. It’s by direction of our commissioners, our building department heads, and our city manager who doesn’t care about this issue at all."

The city administration acknowledges that it changed city policy in March in a way that fast tracked demolition orders. However, the city told WLRN that all decisions on whether to demolish a property or not are made by the independent Unsafe Structures Panel. The city, it said, only makes a recommendation to the panel based on "the conditions of the property, structural integrity, and percentage of deterioration."

The potential of large scale developments in some areas targeted by the city are apparent. When multiple properties on the same street are demolished, it creates opportunities for developers to acquire the properties and petition the city to build a large scale development.

Here are some situations that could potentially create such opportunities:

  • Three homes on the same block of SW 9th St and SW 19th Ave in Little Havana went before the Unsafe Structures Panel in October over alleged unsafe conditions. Nearly the entire opposite side of the street consists of the upscale Intown apartment development, built in 2016. The homes being targeted were all built in the 1920s
  • In Historic Black Coconut Grove, two side-by-side duplex homes built in 1947 on Elizabeth St have been ordered demolished by the city. Most of the block is already composed of new construction homes. Another home across the street has a demolition permit that was not ordered by the city
  • Since the Surfside condo collapse, three side-by-side structures on Flagler St in downtown Miami were issued demolition permits by city order
  • Side-by-side homes in Little Haiti and the Upper East Side were issued city-ordered demolition permits
  • Side-by-side homes have been issued city-ordered demolition permits on two different blocks in the Little River neighborhood

New front in a well-known dispute

One property owner who has a widely known dispute with Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo has found three properties connected to his family and associates at risk of demolition.

Bill Fuller’s properties in Little Havana have been frequently targeted by code enforcement ever since he hosted a campaign event for Alfie Leon, a candidate for the city commission who ran against Carollo, in 2017.

Ball and Chain, a popular salsa club on Calle Ocho, was shut down by the city in November of 2020 over alleged code violations, but it has since reopened. Similar events have plagued other properties and businesses owned by or connected to Fuller.

In ongoing federal lawsuits, Fuller and his associates have argued that Carollo, since taking office, has targeted his properties for code violations in alleged “political payback” over his perceived support of Leon.

Carollo and the city attorney’s office categorically deny anything of the sort, even as a former Miami city manager gave sworn testimony that Carollo and the city “targeted” the properties in order to shut them down.

The Tower Hotel, a historic building on SW 7th St about a block from the main tourist strip, once served as a World War II hospital, and it hosted African-American jazz musicians during the Jim Crow era. In more recent years, the building, which is owned by Fuller, hosted a popular immersive theater experience called Miami Motel Stories.

The building was rundown, and since 2012, when Fuller purchased it, more than 20 permits have been filed to do work on the property. The latest was a 40-year recertification, which was completed in August of 2021, according to city records.

Nevertheless, Fuller faced ongoing issues with code enforcement at the property, and it entered into an agreement with the city to address the alleged code violations. Things escalated until April of 2022, when the City of Miami sent a letter to the Tower Hotel informing them that La Botanica — a building attached to the hotel — was in violation of the agreement and that the city “shall be moving forward to demolish the structure(s) at issue.”

Fuller filed a lawsuit against the city in May to prevent the demolition from happening, alleging that the impending demolition was “entirely retaliatory” and describing his ongoing claims against the city.

Also included in the lawsuit was a property owned by Fuller’s mother. Piedras Villas is an iconic building with a massive colorful mural saying “Welcome to Little Havana” that is visible when crossing SW 37th Ave into Calle Ocho. The building has 24 low-income rental units and four retail spaces.

Piedras Villas building Little Havana
Daniel Rivero
Piedras Villas is a building with an iconic mural that welcomes visitors to Little Havana. The City of Miami is fighting in court for the right to demolish it. The building has 24 low-income rental units and four retail spaces.

The lawsuit says that the city identified code issues with the building, including issues with the dimensions of a staircase in the back of the property. The staircase has been there since the building was constructed in 1930, say Fuller and his mother. The owners entered into an agreement with the city to bring the building up to code, but then the plans that they filed were manually canceled by the city administration, records show.

“Because the City has canceled the permitting process, Piedras Villas cannot proceed and faces the imminent demolition of its unique, historical and valuable Property,” reads the lawsuit.

A similar set of circumstances surrounds the 439 Hotel building in Overtown, owned by a close associate of Fuller. That property was highlighted in 2020 in Vogue Magazine as an example of historic preservation of buildings that are significant to Black Miami. Inflexibility with the USP and systemic issues with the permitting process have left the property at risk of being imminently demolished.

In an Oct. 28 ruling, Miami-Dade Judge Alan Fine temporarily banned the city from moving to demolish any of the properties, but the case is ongoing. He wrote that it would be “grossly inequitable” for the city to demolish the buildings at this point.

“Plaintiffs will suffer irreparable harm in the form of the complete destruction of one business and their properties,” wrote Judge Fine. “Although none of the properties has been awarded a historic designation, the buildings are very old and have unique characteristics.”

In a meeting for Miami’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board on November 1st, just three days after the court order, things came to a head. Fuller had been trying to get the three properties a historic designation since April. After a series of delays, the item was finally on the agenda for a final vote.

City manager Art Noriega sent a request to the board, asking it to postpone the vote because of the ongoing litigation and the temporary court order not to demolish the property. Jihan Soliman, an assistant city attorney, said that there was no ordinance that would prevent the board to take up the vote, but that the board should postpone the vote anyways.

“We have a court order to not — until the stay is lifted, not to move forward on these properties,” said Jihan Soliman, an assistant city attorney at the meeting. “This board is going to be doing something while the City of Miami is doing and taking other litigation stances. So at this time, it is a legal and a policy request to defer until the litigation.”

The request became a point of serious contention in the meeting. The stated purpose of the Historic and Environmental Preservation Board is to protect historic properties at risk of demolition. And here the city asked the board to delay a vote that would protect a property that met all the criteria for a historic designation.

I’ve never seen the city so against preserving a structure out in the open
Hugh Ryan, member of Miami's Historic and Environmental Preservation Board.

After repeatedly being asked about it, Soliman was unable to point to where the court said the city should not move forward with designating the properties as historic. Instead, Soliman stressed that the properties are part of a complicated court case that has “so many moving parts.”

Board member Najeeb Campbell read the October court order out loud and accused Soliman and the city attorney’s office of pressuring the independent board to hold off on the vote as an act of “coercion” based on falsehoods.

“That’s coercion,” said Campbell. “To me, the city is actually asking us a favor to help them out in order to make this litigation proceed.”

“It’s approaching illegality. It’s approaching a strange zone,” he added.

For his part, Fuller spoke to the board about the three properties in a rising tone. The properties met all the conditions for historic preservation that are written in black and white, he argued. They should be historically protected and safeguarded from demolition no matter who owns them, he added.

“This is a race for demolition from a municipality. Nowhere in America does this exist. This existed where my mom was born in Cuba in the 1960s, in the early 60’s. This is what they did,” said Fuller.

“Only in the City of Miami in today's day does the city attorney and the city manager request of the preservation officer not to save a building,” he continued.

“Are we living in the United States of America anymore? Is this a democracy or you guys just pawns of the commissioner? Or is today your day to rise up and say, ‘My only task is to be a preservation director and to make a decision that is to preserve a historic resource of the city of Miami?’”

As Fuller laid out his case for historic preservation to the board, assistant city attorney Soliman interrupted.

“I would like to remind the gentleman you're under oath,” said Soliman.

“Absolutely,” shot back Fuller. “As are you.”

Despite pleas from the city attorney’s office, the Historic and Environmental Preservation Board decided to move forward with the vote. Two board members, including Galvez Turros, separately commented that they are aware of ongoing issues with how unsafe structures cases are flagged and handled.

Members commented that it’s rare to have a property owner who is “willing” to have their properties historically designated, and that they were baffled about the city’s stance.

“I’ve never seen the city so against preserving a structure out in the open. I mean, to me, it's very simple. Someone wants to come here and meets the qualifications and they give it presentation — let's do it,” said board member Hugh Ryan.

The independent board unanimously voted to designate the three properties as a “historic resource” of the City of Miami. The city continues fighting for the right to demolish the properties in court.

Daniela Clavijo.JPG
Daniel Rivero
Daniela Clavijo is a working full-time student. She said it felt like she was 'living again' when she found affordable housing in Little Havana, after moving three times in only a few months. Tenants of the building have now been ordered evacuated after property owners failed to obtain a 40-50 year recertification.

Little Havana building ordered evacuated

In Little Havana, just a block away from the famed Domino Park on Calle Ocho, tenants at an 18-unit building are being told to evacuate the property by Dec. 31. The city posted an unsafe structure notice to the building in August saying the owners had to “repair or demolish” the structure over a failure to get a 40-50 year recertification.

“Although our building at 1536 SW 9th Street is safe for occupancy, it requires significant and substantial repair and renovation in order to be recertified, and such repairs and renovation can only be completed when the building is empty and occupied,” reads a notice to vacate sent to tenants of the building on October 25 sent by the corporate landlord, the Brooklyn-based Beekman First Holdings.

On recent visits to the building, built in 1932, residents have been seen carrying cardboard boxes into their homes to pack up and leave by the deadline.

Daniela Clavijo, a 23-year-old resident and full-time student at Florida International University, said the notice has thrown her life into disarray. With rents so high in Miami, she had already moved three times this year before signing a $1,250-a-month year long lease at the property in June.

“When I found this place it was like I was living again. Like breathing and sleeping again,” said Clavijo. The prospect of everyone having to pack up their belongings and find another place to live during the holiday season is a nightmare, said Clavijo.

With such short notice, she doesn’t know if she will have the money to put towards a new rental. And looming over it all are the words “unsafe structure,” words that have acquired new meaning after the Surfside condo collapse.

It’s just disrespectful how nobody has some sort of empathy for hardworking people. We don’t want anything for free
Tenant Daniela Clavijo, who has been told to evacuate her apartment in Little Havana.

“We’re staying here because we have nowhere to go in this crazy market, but we also live with anxiety because we don’t know how bad the structure is. The city is saying this is an ‘unsafe structure’ but when you call them they don’t give you any response to anything, if you’re lucky enough to get a hold of them,” said Clavijo.

The city told WLRN that tenants who want information about the properties where they live can visit the Unsafe Structures Division in person at 444 SW 2nd Ave, 4th Floor, or they can call or email the city.

The reality, said Clavijo, is that the only places she and other tenants can afford are in buildings that tend to be aging. With a simple lack of affordable housing options, Clavijo worries about the fate of herself and other tenants – pregnant women, women with multiple children, restaurant workers.

Clavijo said the overall feeling is that everything is stacked against low-income people. From landlords to the job market, to the real estate market, to the city government.

“You ask for a raise at work like Mayor Francis Suarez says, ‘Oh they need to find another job then, that’s the solution.' It made me feel like, like, 'I’m not doing enough? When it’s just to pay the bare minimum things?'

"It’s human necessities, I’m not traveling or you know — it’s just school, then rent and everything,” said Clavijo, fighting through tears. “It’s just disrespectful how nobody has some sort of empathy for hardworking people. We don’t want anything for free. But it’s just a very unfair market. And nobody cares. “

She has now left the property she thought would be home for a full year, and is temporarily living at a friend's house while she figures out her next steps.

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.