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From a Distance, Landlord Learns of Local Code Enforcement's Fickle Ways

Like the buttered toast that always falls face first on the kitchen floor, city code inspectors tend to be tough on the conscientious property owner, only to be lax when it comes to the most negligent property owners. Or at least that's the experience that poor Robert Rosenberg has had in South Florida. The attorney lives in western Washington state but owns a property in Wilton Manors that he's been trying to rent out.

The bane of Rosenberg's existence as a landlord is the property across the street: the Middle River Trailer Park. On the satellite photo above, it's that overgrown section on the west side of Northeast 13th Avenue, while Rosenberg's duplex is the building on the east side of the street, at the corner of Northeast 23rd Street.

The trailer park is abandoned. It's full of varmints, dangerously dilapidated buildings, low-hanging electrical wires and abandoned vehicles. An inviting location for a transient -- and there's no shortage of those, either -- but it scares away prospective tenants from Rosenberg's building.

So Rosenberg has had every reason to lobby the city toward enforcing the bevy of code violations that exist on the property. According to his research, the city had accumulated some $300,000 worth of fines on the property; but in 2006, it had forged an agreement with the trailer park's owners, the Yawt family, to settle those fines if the Yawts paid just $30,000 in fines and brought the property up to code.

According to Rosenberg, the Yawts failed to hold up their end of the deal. This should have given the city the right to foreclose on the lien, seizing the property and then selling it at auction -- in 2007, mind you, just before the South Florida real estate market went off the cliff.

For reasons unknown, the city failed to act on that opportunity. City Attorney Kerry Ezrol, who would have been expected to seek the court order necessary for seizing and auctioning the trailer park property, has not responded to questions e-mailed yesterday about why that is. (We'll update this post if we hear back from him.)

Due to the lack of action by the city, the property remained a nuisance these past three years, blighting everything in the surrounding area. Minutes of Wilton Manors Commission meetings suggest that the city acquired the necessary court order in August of 2008, but by that time, the property had already been sold by the Yawts to PHG Holdings, which was said to be planning to build an upscale gay-themed resort on the land.

That sale hit a snag, however, when one of the parties involved in the sale was found to not have that legal authority, among other things. The buyer demanded amendments that would change the purchase price. The transaction appears to be hopelessly mired in Broward courts, as the property continues to deteriorate.

So it's hard to blame Rosenberg for being frustrated when this past fall he heard from that same code enforcement division -- not in response to his desperate calls for action on the Yawt property but because code inspectors had apparently found violations on his property.

Compared to the glaring problems at the trailer park, these were petty -- especially since he says he'd made no changes to the property, which had passed code inspection before he bought it nearly eight years ago. Based on the most recent code enforcement matters, he paid some $5,000 to alter the residence so that an efficiency unit became a part of one of the building's larger units.

Rosenberg hasn't been able to find out exactly why those inspectors were so lax with the Yawt property and so aggressive with his, but he has a theory: It involves a tenant known as "Bambi" who Rosenberg says was a constant complainer. She was in the habit, he says, of spicing up her maintenance requests with a threat to tell a friend in the Wilton Manors building department about Rosenberg. (One of Bambi's complaints, says Rosenberg, was his having rented the adjoining unit to a lesbian; Bambi demanded to know how she would explain to her 3- and 1-year-old grandchildren why two girls would kiss each other.)

"She kept threatening to call her good friend at city hall to have me cited," says Rosenberg of Bambi, who managed to drive away the lesbian tenant this past June. Prior to Bambi's scheduled departure, she demanded to receive her full deposit before she moved and before Rosenberg's property manager had the chance to see the condition of the apartment. "I explained to her, 'That's not how it works,'" he says. Rosenberg believes that Bambi summoned her friend at City Hall as a parting shot.

"Literally, there's a health hazard across the street," says Rosenberg, of the trailer park property. "My efficiency? That's nothing to anyone -- and yet somehow I get cited."

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Thomas Francis

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