Miami residents living 'like we are dogs' say landlord doing nothing to help
Properties linked to New Jersey woman, husband who says he wouldn't live there
MIAMI – Gaynisha Williams said the problem started with what appeared to be a water leak on the ceiling of her teenage son's bedroom.
"Before he went to bed, there was a big old bubble," Williams told Local 10 News investigative reporter Christina Vazquez. "Then when he went asleep, the whole thing fell on top of him. It dislocated his neck. He could have died."
Her Liberty City apartment is one of nine buildings owned by six companies that state records show is run by Denise Vaknin.
Williams' daily battle with mold, live roaches, electrical issues and spotty repairs are echoed in dozens of pages of state and city inspection reports spanning several years that outline lists of health, life and safety violations at several buildings.
The violations noted by city and state inspectors over the past three years at several buildings have included ceiling cave-ins, exposed rebar, broken windows, missing balcony railings, missing smoke detectors, missing fire extinguishers, plumbing problems, live vermin, mold-like substances on bathroom walls, no balcony certification, non-functioning ventilation/air conditioner, damaged electrical wire(s), blocked exit doors, spilling concrete and water leaks.
In January, just days after the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation renewed the license of Miami Beverly LLC, which owns 6040 NW 12th Ave., an inspector observed a "live rodent inside the cabinet in the kitchen" and "5 live roaches on the kitchen" floor. In one unit, the toilet was leaking. Inspectors also observed PVC pipe being used as a spigot in a bath tub. That was in addition to several repeat violations, including a missing railing on the stairway, mold-like substance on the wall and exposed rebar.
Three DBPR administrative complaints dated April 24 document that at three of the nine buildings the company that owns the property is operating without a license from the Division of Hotels and Restaurants.
The settlement option DBPR offered to the property owner is a "reduced fine of $200." That's $450 less than Williams said she pays in rent each month.
"You are getting my money. You are getting all my money," Williams said. "We are living like we are not human beings, like we are dogs."
"It is ridiculous the way people are living," the Rev. James Pacley, president of People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality, or PULSE, said, citing the "filth and the mold and the feces coming down from upstairs."
"You have people breathing in mold and mildew," PULSE Executive Director Nathaniel Wilcox said. "They won't die like a gunshot, because of the infection, because of what happens to their bodies. It is not a quick shot like a gunshot. It is a slow death."
The city of Miami is suing the six companies that own these buildings to recover more than $2.4 million in unpaid fines. The owners never responded to the suit. The city is now seeking a final judgment against them.
READ: City of Miami lawsuit
Despite the chronic, years-long documented substandard living conditions, the woman who runs the companies that own the buildings continues to collect rent in the range of $500 to $650 a month, according to residents.
"They are making a living off the working poor, and this can't continue to go on," Wilcox said "Some people are not able to make ends meet to move to another place. The tenants that helped us, that gave us information, they were kicked out."
The companies' mailing address is listed as 99 Roberts Road in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.
Vazquez visited the multimillion-dollar home in an effort to speak with Denise Vaknin and the man identified as her husband, Abraham, about the violation-plagued buildings in Miami.
The couple dodged questions.
"I would be ashamed," Wilcox said. "I wouldn't want anybody seeing who I am -- a slumlord."
Vazquez also tried to contact Abraham Vaknin for comment at the Opa-locka home listed under the name Denise Vaknin.
"People living in disrepair, in these types of conditions, I would run from the camera, too," Wilcox said. "We don't want to shut the apartments down, because if we shut the apartments down, then the people won't have anywhere to go. The owners should be made to live in their own apartments. They wouldn't want to live in those apartments either, because they know it is subhuman."
When Vazquez asked the man identified as Abraham Vaknin if he would live in the apartments, he replied with one word: "No."
"I want to see those apartments fixed up nice enough that anybody wouldn't mind living in those apartments," Pacley said.
Coming up this Wednesday on Local 10 News at 11 p.m., Vazquez explores how these companies are getting away with letting their buildings rot and the effort underway to draft a new state law to combat the problem.
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