South Beach short-term rentals developer sues ‘Save SoFi’ campaign founder

A months-long battle between Miami Beach residents and city officials continues over a short-term rental hotel properties project.

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – Amid a months-long battle between Miami Beach residents and city officials over a short-term rental hotel properties project continues.

In recent weeks, neighbors have been pushing to have various city boards reconsider the projects. City officials maintained the projects were approved correctly and should be allowed to move forward.

Becky Houchen-Bemis, a psychologist who lives in In the city’s South of Fifth neighborhood, said one of the construction projects is just feet away from her bedroom window.

“They’re right there; that’s where the workers go in and out ... I can almost reach out and touch them I feel like,” Houchen-Bemis said, adding her condo on Meridian Avenue is where she envisioned spending her retirement after working nearly five decades for Miami-Dade County Public Schools. That changed when the construction started without notification.

The neighboring property, at 310 Meridian Ave., and another at Third Street and Jefferson Avenu are two planned apartment hotel projects, helmed by different developers. Residents have complained about those too. Some said they don’t want “Airbnb” style hotels on their street.

“I have been at this for about eight months, and I am literally trying to save our neighborhood from just falling apart ... because if these projects are allowed to continue, it’s going to be devastating,” said David Suarez, an area resident.

Neighbors said it’s not just about the trash and crime the projects could bring. It is also about how the city went about approving the projects. It was a process residents said left them completely in the dark.

The city’s planning department administratively approved plans for both properties. It’s part of a streamlined review process for which certain types of projects are eligible under the code, but residents argued the scope of both projects should have required review by the city’s Historic Preservation Board. This would have triggered a notice to the public.

“They said they streamlined it. What they did, they got rid of my due process,” said Houchen-Bemis, “As a resident, I have a due process I have the right to know what they’re doing right next door to me.”

A September letter to the commission from the city manager outlined the process saying the review of building applications is a regulatory function and the building official and the planning director act as “semi-autonomous” personnel.

A report released earlier this month by the city’s Office of the Inspector General found the planning department violated the city code by not requiring a specific application from the Meridian Avenue property owner and a lack of written notice once a project was approved. Then last week, the Historic Preservation Board agreed to largely pause the Jefferson Avenue project until a further review in March.

“There was no notice, given that there’s going to be a hotel in the middle of our neighborhood,” Suarez said.

Suarez launched the “Save SoFi” campaign with a website outlining the resident’s concerns about the projects including noise, lack of parking, and less safety. The developer for the Jefferson Avenue project is Louis Puig, a nightlife entrepreneur who owned Club Space.

A short-rental hotel developer filed a lawsuit against a Miami Beach community organizer who represented residents who felt excluded from the process to approve the developer's projects in their neighborhood.

The controversy has turned personal. One former elected official confirmed Puig sent a message in late December falsely alleging Suarez had an arrest record.

“I am going to have to sue him for slander and make his life public via a personal media campaign,” Puig wrote. “If we can’t find a middle ground, he might end up losing custody of his kid if it gets real ugly. I really do not want that to happen. Maybe you can help prevent this unnecessary battle.”

Suarez said he perceived the message as a threat to him and his son. Last week, Puig filed a lawsuit against Suarez for defamation.

Puig declined to participate in an interview with Local 10, but he responded via text message: “We have a building permit and are following all building and zoning codes. We are trying to turn an old abandoned and dilapidated building into a beautiful boutique short and long-term rental property. Mr. David Suarez is using his South of Fifth neighbors to bully the city and its employees and he has chosen to defame me in order to prove his point. I am a businessman, and my family and I have ties to this community going back to 1968 when we fled from Cuba to escape oppression. We didn’t take bullying back then, and we will not take it now.”

Suarez said it isn’t personal; it’s about protecting the neighbors’ quality of life.

“It’s impactful on the community ... we should have had the right to oppose this, and we were deprived of that,” Suarez said.

The city commission was set to review the Office of the Inspector General report regarding how these projects were approved. Officials said there will be no similar developments in the neighborhood moving forward. Last year, the city banned apartment hotels from most of the South of the Fifth neighborhood after hearing resident concerns.

About the Author:

Amy Viteri is an Emmy Award-winning journalist who joined Local 10 News in September 2015. She's currently an investigative reporter and enjoys uncovering issues facing South Florida communities. A native of the Washington, D.C., area, she's happy to be back in South Florida, where she earned a masters degree at the University of Miami.