MIAMI – Local 10 News investigative reporter Christina Vazquez first reported Monday on the Miami residents of Liberty City and Overtown living in conditions described as substandard.
"Mold and mildew, that's how they got us living," resident Gaynisha Williams said.
Their voices illuminate what piles of paperwork document.
For years the companies that own nine buildings located in Liberty City and Overtown have racked up fines, critical and high-priority violations impacting the life and safety of residents.
Vazquez worked to track down the person who runs those companies, from a home registered in her name in Opa-locka to a multimillion-dollar home in New Jersey.
"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. "You should not have to make people and push people to keep their properties up."
"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."
State records show the companies are run by Denise Vaknin. Each mailing address goes back to 99 Roberts Road in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Records there show the home was purchased by Vaknin in 2003.
Vazquez approached the woman observed at the property walking with a man identified as her husband, Abraham.
"We don't own any property," she told Vazquez.
"Under Miami Beverly LLC?" Vazquez asked.
"No," she replied.
Miami Beverly LLC is just one of six companies the city of Miami identified as owning the nine buildings it described as being in "severe disrepair" in a lawsuit filed last October.
The owners never responded to the suit, and the city is now seeking a final judgement against them.
Miami-Dade County property records still showed Miami Beverly LLC as the owner of 1250 NW 62nd St., 6040 NW 12th Ave. and 1231 NW 61st St.
"What do you care who I am?" Vaknin asked. "I told you. Leave me alone."
"We care because there are people suffering in buildings owned by the Vaknin family," Vazquez said.
With every mailing address on file listed at the New Jersey home, that's where Vazquez went to speak with the person who runs the companies city and state records identify as responsible for conditions deemed substandard.
"We are not Mr. and Mrs. Vaknin," the woman said.
But when Vazquez asked the next-door neighbors to review the video, they identified the couple as Denise and Abraham Vaknin.
Vazquez tracked down a woman who identified herself as the nanny for the couple's daughter, and she also confirmed their identities. Vazquez also located a South Florida business owner who has seen the couple in person during a real-estate transaction.
"That's them, 100 percent," DJ Acquisitions CEO Jonathan Fridlender told Vazquez.
"Why do you think they would deny being themselves?" Vazquez asked.
"Maybe they are embarrassed about the slums that they run," Fridlender said as he was working at 14370 NW 22nd Ave. in Opa-locka, which DJ Acquisitions owns. "That's what we bought. We bought 1136 (NW Second Ave. from Vaknin) in deplorable conditions. We've been trying to work with the (Community Redevelopment Agency) to rejuvenate it and rehabilitate it just like we did here in Opa-locka."
Clarence E. Woods III, executive director of Southeast/Overtown Park West Community Redevelopment Agency, confirms that his group has been in conversation with Fridlender on what can be done to address the issues at that property. Renovating it is one possibility, Woods said. Another would be demolishing it to make way for new construction that would better accommodate current residents in the redevelopment area. It all comes down to what funding is available to address the problem.
"We are owner operators on the property," Fridlender said. "You can see I am here. We are going to cut down trees and put up fences. We don't sit in an ivory tower up in New Jersey. We are with the people."
At the Vaknin-run buildings, plagued with live roaches, mold, broken windows and crumbling concrete, residents told state inspectors they pay $500 to $650 a month in rent.
"He should be ashamed about the way he got people living," Fridlender said. "You don't have enough decency to come over here to make sure the families that are living on your properties are OK?"
When Vazquez asked the man identified as Abraham Vaknin if he would live in the properties, he replied, "No."
"Well, if I was responsible for apartments like this, I would run from the camera, too," Wilcox said.
The man identified as Abraham Vaknin also did not answer questions when approached by Vazquez outside the Opa-locka home that property records show is in the name of his wife.
"God is watching," resident Janet Ford said. "The man just don't understand -- he can run, but he can't hide."
"While Florida law allows a tenant to withhold rent when a landlord will not make repairs, it must be done properly," explained Jeffrey M. Hearne, director of litigation for Legal Services of Greater Miami, Inc. "The tenant must tell the landlord, in writing, that she will withhold rent in seven days if the landlord does not make repairs. Unfortunately, it is not effective for landlords who do not want to repair anything. The problem we have in Florida, unlike most other states, is that a tenant must deposit the rent with the court to defend an eviction. If the tenant did not properly withhold the rent and the tenant does not follow the correct procedures in the eviction, the tenant loses automatically without being able to raise any defenses and without ever seeing a judge. In most evictions, tenants are defaulted and never get a day in court. Since a tenant will likely have to deposit rent with the court, many tenants decide to take their money and move out, rather than raise the conditions of the apartment and defend the eviction. Then the landlord rents the apartment to another tenant and the cycle continues."
The city attorney's office told Vazquez that the city is owed more than $2.4 million in fines related to "code enforcement, building, solid waste and fire violations. This total continues to increase due to ongoing per diem fines and interest fees."
"The city attorney's office is working through the court system to bring these properties into compliance by holding its owners accountable for the poor living conditions of the residents," Miami city attorney Victoria Mendez said in a statement. "We hope to improve the quality of life for these citizens through our courts."
Local 10 News uncovered two of the nine buildings are currently listed for sale on the commercial real-estate website LoopNet.com.
The property at 1710 NW First Court is listed at $1 million, while 1730 NW First Court is listed at $416,000.
"If they are trying to sell these properties, what are some of the challenges they are going to face from potential buyers?" Vazquez asked Fridlender.
"They are going to have to work with the city because you have city liens in excess of the valuation of the property," Fridlender said. "You're going to have to work with the city to bring everything up to code."
Fridlender said the property has to be bought "at the right price point to make money. You know, unless it's a nonprofit doing it." He said the prices are "unrealistic with the amount of work that has to go into it."
Coming up Wednesday on Local 10 News at 11 p.m., Vazquez explores the efforts under way to change state law.
"Until a point in time that somebody in the legislature says we had enough, we need to treat people the same way we treat animals," state and federal prosecutor David Weinstein said. "We need to put teeth into our statutes. Until they place a statute in place on the books that says, you know what, if you let a human being put themselves in a situation that you caused that is substandard, that causes them exposure to a serious injury, that causes them exposure to things like mold, things that are going to affect their life and their ability to live, and then you know you are going to jail, that is the only time people are going to listen."
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