MIAMI – Three Miami families filed a lawsuit Friday against their landlord -- known as "Slumlord Millionaire" -- alleging a disregard for safety due to deplorable living conditions.
Legal Services of Greater Miami Inc. and Florida Legal Services, Inc. filed the lawsuit on behalf of Gaynisha Williams, Shannon Daniels and Lakeisha Chatfield against the three companies that own the property -- Miami Beverly, Liberty Apartments and Freedom Apartments.
The lawsuit was also filed against Denise Vaknin, referred to as the "slumlord millionaire." Vaknins, who is a New Jersey resident, owns the three Florida companies associated with the property in Miami.
"We are hoping to get her attention and bring it home," said lead attorney Rebecca Parsons Schram, who was seeking damages of more than $15,000 on behalf of her clients.
Vaknin has a business model of renting dilapidated apartments at 6040 NW 12th Ave., in Miami, to poor families and refusing to make repairs, the lawsuit said. The City of Miami declared the building unsafe and filed a lawsuit against the property owner Oct. 29, 2014 due to numerous code violations.
DOCUMENT: Lawsuit against owners of dilapidated Miami property
Schram said that when Daniels, a resident at the property from May to August of last year, talks about "being comfortable," she is referring to "uninterrupted utilities, structurally sound buildings" and plumbing repairs. Daniels also reported raw sewage raining down from her ceiling.
Chatfield lived in the property with her five-year-old daughter from May to December of last year. The ceiling, which she had complained had been leaking water, fell on her daughter on June and August of last year. And Chatfield was hospitalized for five days after a black widow spider bit her, according to the lawsuit.
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Williams has lived there with her son since November 2012, the lawsuit said. Williams said she had a holes, water damage and mold on the walls and damaged electrical wires. She organized a "rent strike" and received four eviction actions.
The Local 10 News' three-part "Call Christina" investigation "Left To Rot" reported on the on-going issues that the residents at the apartment units faced. The long list of issues also included mold, ceiling cave-ins and sewage leaks.
"The message is you are going to be held personally accountable … you are not going to get away with this any longer," Schram said. "You have got to take care of these apartments; you have to protect these tenants from the ceiling falling down."
The goal is that landlords be forced to maintain basic standards, and when they choose no to maintain those standards that they be held accountable. Schram said the families want to hold Vaknin personally accountable for the deplorable conditions of the apartments.
"The problem is she [Vaknin] has been hiding through these shell corporations," Schram said referring to corporations without assets or operations. The "fear is that you are going to get judgments against these corporations and they are going to be just that, judgments on a piece of paper."
The property at 6040 NW 12th Ave. is one of nine Miami apartment buildings owned by companies that state records show all go back to Vaknin at 99 Roberts Road, Englewood Cliffs, in New Jersey.
Vaknin purchased the property through Miami Beverly July 14, 2009. The Florida Department of State dissolved Miami Beverly Dec. 19, 2011 and reinstated it March 6, 2012. Miami Beverly quit-claimed the property to both Freedom Apartments and Liberty Apartments on Feb. 11, 2015.
When Local 10 News Investigative Reporter Christina Vazquez met Vaknin at the multimillion dollar home in New Jersey, she and her husband, Abraham Vaknin, dodged questions.
Corporate entities are usually formed to protect individual corporate members for acts committed by the corporation. As a result of the tenants' lawsuit, Vaknin will have a greater incentive to defend herself. Their property is facing 10 liens from the city.
Former state and federal prosecutor David Weinstein, who is not involved in either of the lawsuits, said that since the tenants' lawsuit names Vaknin, and not just the companies she runs, they may be able to go after her personal assets to satisfy any monetary award they receive.
Follow Christina Vazquez on Twitter @CallChristinaTV