Community activist asks state attorney to investigate Miami Code Enforcement

Request pertains to troubled properties run by New Jersey landlords

MIAMI – New Jersey residents Denise Vaknin and Abe Vaknin are landlords of several South Florida buildings which are in deplorable condition. 

The  buildings, which were recently the focus of a Call Christina series, are currently in receivership and are in the process of going before the Miami Code Enforcement Board.

Fines on one of properties have been reduced, and now a South Florida lawyer has asked the Miami Dade Office of the State Attorney to investigate.

"The objective in this whole process is to change the system so that the community is involved and the community has a sense they can rely on the system to protect them and to give them a legitimate long-term response to this” Bill Burdette of the Center for Social Change, said.  

Burdette wants the community to know that the commission "cares about them," and that the "system protects them." He wants residents to know that they have the "right to use that system to get to those results because it is not just this property.”

His solution is to buy the troubled  properties that are run by Denise and Abe Vaknin of New Jersey and create a Community Land Trust.

In March the city of Miami's Code Enforcement Board reduced the total amount of fines related to two cases at a property on 1730 NW First Court. 

One fine that was at $1,009,500 was brought down to $10,000, which is a 99 percent reduction, and another fine at $97,750 was brought down 79.5 percent to $20,000. 

Patricia Arias, the attorney for the Code Enforcement Board, said in that meeting the volunteer board members were reviewing that one property in which the owner was not the original violator.

"That is the way the process goes because every person that goes up there, and every entity that comes before that board is given an opportunity for them to say I want to pay X and they are going to find it reasonable or not find it reasonable," said Arias. "They were treated like every other citizen is treated. The board looked at what was before them which was that property. Everybody is given the opportunity to make their case. I repeat, what is good for the geese is good for the gander; the board does not treat anybody differently, no entity, no person is treated differently; everybody has an opportunity to mitigate that’s why it’s called the mitigation."

That answer isn't good enough for Burdette. 

"Clearly the board could have asked more questions but they didn’t and I have no idea why they didn’t," said Burdette. "To the extent that even if this was limited to windows being improperly installed some five or six or seven years ago that doesn’t mean the properties are currently in code qualifying condition and why those questions were not asked is really, really beyond me."

An email and a letter:

On April 19  Burdette said he got an email from Abe Vaknin that read, "We are closing all the violations and liens. So far we cleaned all the violations and liens in Overtown. we are working now on Liberty City buildings. Your offer will be subject to clean title." 

"The owner of the property said 'Don’t worry about them they are going to be released,'" Burdette said. "How are they going to be released? You are saying you are going to do the work? Which happens to be, by the way, approximately $2 million to upgrade these properties to a point where they would be code compliant, and so we said. 'Oh are you going to make the improvements in order to get the release of the liens?' and he said 'No, they are just going to be released and we were like, what?'"

On April 21 Burdette decided to write a letter to Miami Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle asking her to investigate.

"There are circumstances arising in connection with the release of substantial liens by the City of Miami’s Code of Enforcement which should be investigated by your office to determine whether there is any criminal activity occurring," Burdette wrote in the letter. "We believe that release of the first $1 million of liens was wrong and that any further release of liens without correction of the code violations would be an extreme violation of public trust in this process, and thus grounds for investigating whether criminal charges would be justified."

The Call Christina team asked the City of Miami for a statement regarding this latest development.

 In an email, Deputy City Attorney Barnaby Min, wrote:  “We welcome any actions that will assist with protecting the quality of life of the City's residents.”

 Miami District 1 City Commissioner Willy Gort he plans to add code enforcement, in general terms, as a discussion item to an upcoming commission meeting because he wants to explore how to expedite code compliance.

"I think slumlords should pay what the fine is," he said. "It takes too long for somebody who is breaking the law." 

By the time the city filed suit against the owners in 2014, the nine buildings located in Liberty City and Overtown had already racked up years worth of violations that the city said impacted the life and safety of residents.

"It is a microcosm to a large extent because of its delay," Burdette said. "The fact that it has taken a year now, since there has been a focus on these properties, and still very little has been done. Yes they have gone into receivership but no action has been taken with respect to the title, no action has been taken with respect to the owners. The only person basically you should be patting on the back is the Receiver. I think the combination of the fact there is a problem and the fact that there has been substantial delays puts us in a position where we can legitimately ask for some attention to these problems now." 

The March CEB Meeting:

During the March meeting  Assistant City Attorney Rachel Dooley said, “The property still has an open 40/50 year violation on it."

A board member asks to her to explain why the property is in receivership. 

"There are nine properties owned by six corporations with the same base owner which is a woman by the name of Mrs. Vaknin but her husband Abe does, I guess manages it," Dooley said. "The properties all continued into disrepair, the city filed the injunction, it got a final judgment, they are in receivership to repair and bring them back into habitable living, there are people who are living in these even though they are not in the best of shape but they don’t have anywhere else to go. As counsel correctly stated, the defendant hasn’t spent a dime on fixing anything for the properties and that is absolutely one hundred percent correct."

Dooley explained that the receiver is working to fix the properties with the incoming rent.

"They are all in deplorable conditions," she said. 

Vaknin’s attorney Renee Marie Smith shot back at that comment. 

"I would argue against that because if they were so deplorable. We wouldn’t have closed violations that I would be standing up here mitigating," Smith said. "I think it is over broad for the city attorney to lump 147 units together at this hearing today, it is improper, because we are here to discuss one building, two violations that are in compliance. If the buildings were that uninhabitable and that unsafe I would think the city would have taken other steps to obviously board them up, which was done in one case." 

Smith said that her client paid more than $2,000 in fines on the building and "There is no outstanding liens for other different issues on this other than what we are addressing here today." 

Smith claims that they have been working on building deficiencies since 2011.

Dooley said this is not right. 

"That is not correct. You have a building case that is still open and is still accruing," Dooley said. "The 40/50 violation has been open since 2013. To say that they have been working on caring and maintaining the building I think is not an accurate statement to this board, at all whatsoever." 

When the city of Miami filed suit in October of 2014, they said the corporate property owners owed more than $2.4 million in unpaid fines.

In a court document filed last December, it was revealed the final judgment number now exceeds $3 million.

For years people in the Vaknin-run buildings have said they have been living with mold, crumbling balconies, electrical issues, sewage leaks, and roaches.

There was even a ceiling collapse. 

City and state inspection reports had documented years' worth of health, life and safety violations.

The issues allowed to fester as the buildings were left to rot. Property owners ignored violations, millions of dollars' worth of fines and even a city of Miami lawsuit. 

In June, a judge granted the city's motion for default judgment and receivership. 

In March Vaknin’s attorney filed an appeal. 

Local 10 News has asked her for a statement on that and will continue to follow the latest developments in this case.