Vera De Souza insists she’s been a good tenant.

She’s lived in Design Place for the past eight years, and for most of that time has never missed a rent payment. That is, until COVID-19 came along and she lost her job as a restaurant worker. De Souza’s rental assistance is still being processed, but in the meantime her income is limited to weekly $275 unemployment checks and whatever money she can earn selling homemade masks. On top of that she is helping her daughter-in-law, who also lives in the complex, recover from a difficult birth.

De Souza said the property’s management told her they’d work with her, just as they had months ago when she first fell behind on her rent. But just 10 days before Christmas, she was served with an eviction notice.

“Today, a guy knocked on my door and gave me a paper,” De Souza told The Miami Times on Dec. 15.

Eleazar Melendez

Eleazar Melendez of the Biscayne Neighborhood Association and Pia Palomino of FANM canvassed Design Place last month.

She is not alone. Forty eviction suits were filed by SPV Realty LLC, the owner of Design Place, between Aug. 14 and Nov. 25. Of those 40 cases, 16 are still open. De Souza said she’d been told that unless management received some sort of payment, she would need to leave on Dec. 31, the date when the Centers for Disease Control’s national moratorium on evictions on tenants with a proven hardship was slated to expire. But the $900 billion emergency package passed before Christmas and reluctantly signed by President Donald Trump on Sunday includes rental assistance, enhanced unemployment benefits and an extension of the eviction moratorium to Jan. 31, 2021.

Many Design Place residents aren’t waiting to be evicted. They’re just packing up and leaving.

“We had so many people move out of here since COVID happened,” said Candice Ross, a call center employee who works from her apartment. “I know both of my downstairs neighbors are gone. And we are seeing moving trucks every day now.”

There are 512 apartment units in Design Place, a 22.5-acre complex of two-story buildings, located at 5045 NE 2nd Ave., just outside of Miami’s official Little Haiti district. It’s a place surrounded by white walls with only two entrances staffed by 24-hour security. Within are trees, gardens and plastic armchair sets with large lamps on front lawns. But even though the community has a bohemian atmosphere on the outside, tenants interviewed by the Times say the apartment buildings are rundown and filled with mold and pests.

Design Place apartment buildings

Design Place apartment buildings may look quaint to passersby, but residents say units are rundown.

Design Place’s ownership is controversial, too. SPV Realty LLC’s director is Sharon Olson, wife of Jay Podolsky. Jay and his brother, Stuart Podolsky, have made hundreds of millions of dollars leasing several of their hotels to New York City for use as homeless shelters. In January 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Podolsky brothers were being investigated by federal prosecutors for tax fraud. In the 1980s, the two siblings and their father pleaded guilty to 37 felony charges after they hired “professional vacators” to intimidate tenants to leave three of their Manhattan buildings, according to a November 2013 New York Magazine article.

Designed for Displacement

Nevertheless, Design Place is among the few nonsubsidized rental communities in the City of Miami that is somewhat affordable. Rents for one-bedroom, two-bedroom and three-bedroom apartments range from $1,200 to $1,600 a month.

One longtime tenant, who didn’t wish to be named for fear of retaliation, described the complex as a friendly environment where people from diverse backgrounds live peacefully together.

“You have hardworking families here, college students, people who work for the city, people who work at minimum wage or at $12 or $13 an hour. You got lots of cooks, lots of waiters, people who have small businesses and work in health insurance,” the tenant said.

But that same tenant alleged that Design Place’s management has grown more ruthless in recent months, pressuring some residents to leave if they fall behind on their rent.

“Most of the people who live [here] don’t know about the CDC moratorium. These are hardworking families,” the tenant said. “My neighbor … was three months behind rent. [Management] intimidated her until she left.”

SPV Realty isn’t the only apartment owner that filed evictions with the court in recent months. Thousands of eviction proceedings have been initiated by landlords across Miami-Dade during two overlapping eviction moratoriums – the first enacted by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in March, the other by the CDC in September. Still, SPV Realty did file the fifth highest number of eviction cases of any landlord in the county, according to Alana Greer, a co-founder and the director of Community Justice Project, a Miami nonprofit that provides legal services to low-income residents and community groups.

However, SPV Realty does have plans to knock down Design Place and replace it with a high-rise project called Eastside Ridge, a 5.4 million-square-foot miniature city with 3,300 apartment units and 418 hotel rooms, as well as offices, retail and community spaces. The City of Miami’s Planning Zoning and Appeals Board (PZAB) will hear SPV’s latest proposal on Jan. 20, 2021.

Stephen Hunter Johnson, an attorney representing SPV Realty, denied his clients were trying to “wipe out” residents living in Design Place, during an appearance at PZAB’s Dec. 2 meeting.

“They are working with their tenants,” he said.

A. Vicky Leiva, another attorney representing SPV Realty, told PZAB members that when the project does commence, apartment buildings will be demolished gradually and tenants will be transferred to available units within the complex. Design Place residents also will be offered financial assistance to relocate elsewhere, and they’ll be invited to move into Eastside Ridge, Leiva added, which will include 75 affordable housing units and 333 workforce apartments. The rest of the apartments will go for market rate.

But Greer said the development agreement that SPV Realty has offered to the city is filled with loopholes and doesn’t include a guarantee that tenants will be able to renew their leases once the project commences.

“The tenant doesn’t have the power to renew a lease if the landlord doesn’t want to renew it,” she explained.

As for the workforce units SPV Realty offered, they’re reserved for individuals and families making up to 140% of Miami-Dade County’s median household income, which is $51,800 a year. Under Housing and Urban Development guidelines, a workforce one-bedroom apartment can rent for between $1,133 and $1,851 a month, while a three-bedroom workforce unit can be rented for between $1,571 and $2,749 a month. According to a City of Miami Planning Department report, the median household annual income in Little Haiti census tracts range between $19,000 and $29,000 a year.

An Iconic Cultural Enclave Swallowed Whole

Eastside Ridge has been panned by urban planners, affordable housing advocates and vocal residents living in Little Haiti, Buena Vista and the Upper Eastside, who feel that the project will swamp the region with additional traffic, destroy the low-rise character of the immediate surrounding area and speed up the pace of gentrification.

Rendering

Plazas, retail and office space, and apartment units are envisioned to replace Design Place in the future.

The future Eastside Ridge also is less than a mile away from the Magic City Innovation District, a proposed 8.2 million-square-foot complex with 2,630 apartments and 432 hotel rooms, along with offices, civic spaces and retail. Approved by the Miami City Commission last year, Magic City was held up by a lawsuit filed by a Little Haiti resident for several months. That lawsuit was dismissed this past November, enabling Magic City’s team of developers to pursue their phased development plan on 17 acres of land consisting of warehouses, vacant lots and the former Magic City Trailer Park at 6005 NE 2nd Ave.

Marleine Bastien

FANM director Marleine Bastien

Marleine Bastien, executive director of the Family Action Network Movement (FANM), has long opposed both Magic City Innovation District and Eastside Ridge. (William Perry, the resident who sued to stop Magic City, is affiliated with FANM and was represented by Community Justice Project.) Bastien contends that the two massive projects will have a devastating effect on Little Haiti. Besides the potential dislocation of hundreds of residents living in Design Place, she said the two projects are attracting land speculators who buy up properties and make it more expensive for working-class residents and small Haitian-owned businesses to remain in the area.

“We have a serious housing crisis in Miami-Dade County … and this pandemic has exacerbated that crisis,” Bastien said. “In the days ahead, things will get worse. This is not the time for us to bring this mega development forth, when people are wondering how they will pay their rent and how they will put food on the table.”

Edward “Ned” Murray, associate director of Florida International University’s Metropolitan Center, agreed with Bastien’s bleak assessment. Murray said the city’s Miami 21 zoning code allows developers with more than nine acres to seek a “special area plan” (SAP) to rewrite their territory’s zoning code. Developers usually use the provision for massive zoning changes in exchange for “community benefits” like parks, straightened roads or even financial donations. But instead of helping neighborhoods, Murray said that SAPs end up destroying them. Once Magic City Innovation District and Eastside Ridge are built, Murray predicted that “there will be no Little Haiti.”

The website of the Magic City Innovation District tells a different story. It claims that 11,680 jobs will be directly or indirectly created from the project, as well as 930 short-term construction jobs. Eastside Ridge’s website claims that 9,093 construction jobs will be generated during the development phase, while another 2,281 permanent jobs will be forged once the project is completed.

Then there’s the money. As part of a last-minute deal formulated by then Miami City Commissioner Keon Hardemon, Magic City’s developers will pay $31 million to the Little Haiti Community Revitalization Trust, which will use the funds to provide economic development and affordable housing within Little Haiti. Leiva said her client has offered to pay $10 million to this fund. City Clerk Todd Hannon has confirmed that the board of the Little Haiti Community Revitalization Trust has not yet been assembled.

Communication Breakdown

But before Eastside Ridge can get approved by the Miami City Commission, it has to receive some sort of vote by the PZAB, and the PZAB has been reluctant to give it. Since June 2018, the PZAB continued or deferred Eastside Ridge at least seven times, usually with demands that the developers meet with FANM and area residents. In November 2019, SPV Realty sued the City of Miami, demanding that the PZAB vote to recommend approval or denial of the project. In April, SPV Realty’s case was dismissed. Six months later, two community meetings were held on Zoom, but they were sparsely attended due to poor advertising and the pandemic, Bastien complained. Although SPV Realty did later agree to reduce the height of the buildings – from 28 to 20 stories – other demands for additional affordable housing and community benefits were ignored.

“This attitude of arrogance and entitlement, the lack of concern and complete disregard for the community, is really horrible,” Bastien said.

On Dec. 2, PZAB deferred a decisive vote for the seventh time. Instead, by a vote of 5 to 3, the board directed Eastside Ridge’s development team to meet yet again with FANM and area residents about the possibility of housing Design Place’s current residents at its present rental rates, or lower. As of deadline, such a meeting has yet to be scheduled.

De Souza said she was never informed by Design Place’s management that the owners wanted to rezone the apartment complex and replace it with a midtown Miami-like development.

“They never tell me anything,” De Souza said. “There is no communication. Everything is a surprise.”

Earlier this month, however, FANM community organizer Pia Palomino and Eleazar Melendez, a consultant from the Edgewater-based Biscayne Neighborhood Association (BNA), visited Design Place to inform residents of their rights, and to find out more about their plight.

Andres Althabe, director of the BNA and a former PZAB member, said his organization is concerned about the prospect of mass evictions at Design Place and other apartment complexes in Miami. And, he added, “I’m trying to help the community in their relationship with the developer, to see if they can come up with the best possible [plan].”

Ross hadn’t heard about SPV’s plans to replace the complex with high-rises until the Times told her.

“I mean, I think it is kind of ridiculous … They’re already putting everybody else out in this area,” she said.

Regardless, she doubts she’ll stay past her lease.

“I personally don’t think it’s worth the cost,” said Ross, who pays $1,600 a month for a two bedroom. “It’s OK. It’s quiet. But there’s always something broken. The AC constantly breaks down. … We have a pest problem.”

Ross suspects that many of the tenants leaving are also annoyed with the shabby conditions of their units.

But, are there cheaper places to live? Ross isn’t sure, but she said she may try her luck in North Miami or North Miami Beach.

“It’s a little cheaper there,” she said. “At least slightly.”

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