MIAMI – A "Call Christina" investigation into Miami families living in deplorable conditions at nine buildings shows a history of unpaid fines related to violations impacting the lives and safety of residents.
The nine buildings are owned by several companies that state records show all can be traced to the name Denise Vaknin and a mailing address of 99 Roberts Road in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.
Local 10 News investigative reporter Christina Vazquez tracked down Vaknin, and the man identified as her husband, Abraham, to the multimillion-dollar New Jersey home and an Opa-locka home, both listed in Vaknin's name, to get answers.
Situation is deplorable, but is it criminal?
Community activists said renters are caught in a bureaucratic quagmire of different agencies on a city, county and state level that seem incapable of compelling the Vaknin-run companies into compliance to ensure safe living conditions.
"People are living in terrible conditions and nothing is being done," Nathaniel Wilcox, executive director for the People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality, or PULSE. "That couple should end up in jail because it is criminal what they are doing to other people."
But former state and federal prosecutor David Weinstein said there is no criminal violation.
"The only criminal violation is if you hinder the housing official's ability to enforce the county ordinance, and then they can punish you up to 60 days, which is a second-degree misdemeanor," Weinstein said. "The only statute that exists anywhere is a county ordinance, and the county ordinance itself says you have to give proper homes. You have to have certain accommodations for people. You have to have running water. You have to have sufficient heat and air conditioning, quality of life, but there is no punishment for not doing that other than a monetary fine."
In this case, the city of Miami told Local 10 the owners have failed to pay more than $2.4 million in fines related to code, building and fire violations.
"The problem is enforcement of what can be done about it," Weinstein said. "There are county ordinances on the books that talk about standards of housing, what you have to do -- running water, electricity, heat, air conditions, working elevators if it is above a certain level, fire alarms, safety, sprinklers, etc., but there is no teeth to it. There is no punishment. All that can be done is that they can be fined for it."
Weinstein said there is no punishment because "unfortunately, people don't listen until their liberty is taken away from them."
"So this landlord who owns all these properties is in the business of making money," Weinstein said. "He owns the properties. He rents the properties out. Once he gets a lease signed and once he's collecting the rent, he really apparently doesn't seem to care what the standard of living is on the inside of any of these apartments."
Wilcox referenced a Local 10 report about a farm where animals were being mistreated, noting that the owner went to jail.
"This couple can treat human beings any kind of way, any slum conditions, and nothing happens," Wilcox said.
Weinstein called the conditions "subhuman."
"We wouldn't let animals live like that," Weinstein said. "There are criminal statutes that punish you for cruel and inhumane treatment to animals; seems like the Legislature cares more about animals than they do human beings. If you inflict (harm on) or torture an animal or cause undo pain to the animal, you are guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor that's punishable to up to a year in jail, in addition to fines and penalties. If you cause death or serious harm or if you inflict undo pain and continued torture to an animal, that's a third-degree felony. That person could get punished up to five years in jail. And yet a landlord who allows his apartment or his rental property to decay to the point there's mold, that's life-threatening to the people who live there, that there's roof leakage that could cause death or serious bodily injury to people who are living there, no plumbing, no water, no electricity, fall into whatever disrepair as long as they continue to get their money."
Fight for a new law
Wilcox wants to see a new law on the books that will give regulators the power to hold negligent landlords accountable in criminal court.
He has taken that call to action to Tallahassee, taking with him poster boards of pictures and showing them to state Reps. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami, and Daphne Campbell, D-Miami.
"How can we protect renters who are living in conditions like this?" Stafford said. "It is really unconscionable. It's like they have no options, have no choice."
Campbell called it "beyond injustice."
Both lawmakers said they are committed to spending the summer months drafting new legislation to make it harder for negligent landlords to escape jail time after ignoring deplorable conditions, life-threatening violations and critical repairs.
"I want to get the minds in the room, get the experts," Stafford said. "I am going to get us together so we can come up with a solution from a state perspective. If that includes filing a bill to create a new law, or amend a law, or get rid of a law, that's what we will be discussing … so that we can really look at systemic change, because that is what has to happen -- system change."
Campbell said she would work "to prevent something like this, to make sure we put a law in place."
"The current law allows this man to do what he is doing right now," she said.
New paint, old problems
On a recent visit to all nine buildings, Vazquez did notice repairs being made at one building owned by a company Vaknin runs, along with a fresh coat of paint.
There appear to be new doors and windows at another building.
The Miami city attorney's office confirms the owners have hired a property manager and construction company, but all code liens continue to accrue.
"They do that so when you pass by the apartment you won't know that on the inside what people are going through," Wilcox said. "They are making profits off the poor in our community, and this can't continue to go on."
Weinstein opined that the landlord might be making repairs "to garner any sort of good will or favor with a judge."
Miami files lawsuit to recover unpaid fines
In October, the city sued the companies identified as owning the buildings in an effort to recover more than $2.4 million dollars of unpaid fines. The owners never responded to the suit. A motion for default final judgment is set for June 4 before Judge Barbara Areces.
READ: City of Miami lawsuit
"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," city attorney Victoria Mendez said in a statement. "We hope to improve the quality of life for these citizens through our courts."
Quitclaim deeds filed
It appears some of the nine properties listed in that lawsuit were quitclaimed as of February 2015, days before an order of default was entered against the corporate entities.
Weinstein said that perhaps Vaknin "is trying to escape the default judgment."
The city told Local 10 that, although not yet entered by the Miami-Dade County property appraiser, after looking into the properties on the clerk's website, it identified four properties that have been quitclaimed.
In an email, the city attorney's office stated that: "Miami Beverly LLC is now Freedom Apartments LLC and covers addresses1250 NW 62nd St., 6040 NW 12th Ave. and 1231 NW 61st St. The Holdings at City LLC is now The Holdings at City III, LLC and covers address 1710 NW First Court. Miami Beverly had a registered agent in Miami and Freedom now claims a mailing address of the building 6440 NW 12th Ave. and registered agent Denise Vaknin at 99 Robert Road, Englewood Cliffs, NJ 07632. The Holdings at City and The Holdings at City III have same Miami registered agent with Denise Vaknin as authorized manager at New Jersey address."
"We will continue forward with the case and include the new owners," Mendez said.
Vazquez asked the attorney on record as preparing the quitclaim deeds about the timing of this effort to transfer interest in the real estate, but she has not replied.
A nationwide story
South Florida hasn't been the only community struggling to bring Vaknin into compliance for a building deemed to be in deplorable conditions.
HOUSTON: In 2013, Texas media reports documented that a Vaknin-run company owed the city of Houston close to a half-million dollars in fines related to violations at an apartment complex called Crestmont Village. There was also an outstanding $900,000 water bill.
In a June 2013 interview with a local television station, then-Councilmember Wanda Adams was quoted as saying, "We don't want to knock anyone for the opportunity to build wealth or to have economics into their future we don't know that. But if you're living in a certain way in a $2.5 million house and you have properties all over the country, why are you neglecting the ones in Houston?"
Adams' office helped eight families at the blighted apartment complex find new homes.
INDIANAPOLIS: According to a 2010 Indianapolis Business Journal article by Kathleen McLaughlin, "The owner of a 518-unit apartment complex in northwest Indianapolis is seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as it disputes the amount of its mortgage debt with its lender."
The article claimed the owner of Creekwood Apartments owes U.S. Bank $16.6 million, but that amount is in dispute. The owner of the property is MREF III Property II LLC, an entity owned by Denise Vaknin and managed by Abraham Vaknin.
According to the court filing, 77 percent of Creekwood's units are occupied, generating monthly income of $203,886.
Little chance for recourse
Law students in the University of Miami Community Lawyering Clinic conducted a review of all of the eviction cases filed during a 16-month period. The review found that few, if any, unsubsidized residential tenants were able to successfully negotiate the court process.
The review, described in the attached Amicus brief, identified three major hurdles for low-income tenants:
1) "Low-income tenants lack information on how to defend themselves in an eviction proceeding."
2) "The procedures for challenging the rent posting requirements are so complex so as to make full compliance impossible for any but the most sophisticated pro se tenants."
3) "Dismissals of tenants filing are so prevalent that the courts often ignore efforts by tenants which appear to comply with all legal requirements. The court itself then is seen as merely a processing agent rather than an independent arbiter of justice."
Chelsea Eagle, deputy director of communications for the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, said the Division of Hotels and Restaurants "is taking immediate actions within its regulatory authority."
However, she said the Division of Hotels and Restaurants "does not have jurisdiction to condemn a public lodging establishment or remove tenants upon the suspension or revocation of a license or the issuance of an administrative order of closure."
"The Division of Hotels and Restaurants has an overall goal of compliance," Eagle said. "Generally speaking, the division will work with public lodging licensees to maintain licensure and bring properties into compliance with state rules and regulations. The licensees have the responsibility to abide by the requirements for licensure, including but not limited to making the necessary repairs and remedies to units."
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