Rent to Moan

Without a doubt, the model unit is beautiful. Dappled light streams through the window onto a spotless beige carpet that covers the condo's 800 square feet like a fuzzy, well-trimmed lawn. The kitchen and bathroom are newly tiled and freshly painted. Dressed in a smart white blouse, her dark hair pulled back in a neat bun, an attractive saleswoman named Viridiana stands at the doorway, waving her hand across the room. "It's going to be just like this," she says, her smile dimpling, allowing the splendor to take hold. "Just like you see."

When I ask to see another unit — one upstairs — her smile stays in place, but her right hand reaches for a cell phone. "Just a minute," she says, and turns away. "I need another room to show him," she says insistently into the phone. She asks several times, with increasing impatience, until she finally hangs up and leads the way out into the hall.

When the elevator opens, it is stripped bare inside, lit by a single naked fluorescent bulb. "We're going to replace them," Viridiana says coolly, referring to the elevators, as we ascend. "They're working on the ones in the other building right now."

The second, upstairs, room is not as nice as the first. The walls are filthy, the cabinets in disrepair, and the whole place reeks of mold. "We're going to clean this one, of course," she promises. "Before, there used to be renters living here. They'll be gone by the end of the month."

Even as sales in the rest of Miami-Dade County have plummeted — down 50 percent from last year — Dadeland Place at SW 77th Avenue and 90th Street has enticed nearly 100 new buyers since its 160 units went on sale just over a year ago. Maybe it's because of the price — or at least the down payment. Signs posted in the parking lot, on the lawn, and across the side of the building scream: "Stop renting! $999 Down, Includes All Closing Costs, Guaranteed!"

But like many of those beautiful condos for sale all over South Florida, the place is not exactly as it seems. Some of those who bought the units — which cost $200,000 to $300,000 — are already starting to wish they hadn't. Code inspectors have cited the building more than 20 times since the condo conversion began and levied about $13,000 in fines. Since January alone, Miami-Dade police have been summoned for six fire-related calls. Four new owners already face foreclosure by Countrywide, to whom the owners' mortgages are uniformly sold. The condo association, controlled by the developer, has placed liens on at least five other condos for unpaid maintenance fees. Owners and renters complained to New Times about everything from broken washing machines to intimidation by building management.

"Who's allowing this to occur? Who's monitoring what's going on?" demands Doris Hall, an outspoken resident who has battled management since moving in a year ago. "These developers are able to take the intrinsic value out of what we hold dear as American — our homes."

Real estate observers have seen the same disturbing trend in Broward and Palm Beach counties, where developers who planned to turn rental apartments into condos have sold some units only to lose faith in the condo market and abandon those plans, reverting to rental as a means of drawing revenue from units that might otherwise remain vacant.

Armando Bravo, the building manager and a partner in the project, says Hall is just a troublemaker. "She's the only person that's complaining — that's the only person," he said over the phone. When asked about other residents' complaints, as well as the many citations the owner has received, Bravo cheerfully replied, "[The residents] can tell me in my face whatever it is — I talk constantly with every resident... Everything is perfect, perfect, perfect."

That's one way to look at it.

The three buildings were purchased in early 2006 by the Palmetto Towers Group for $27.5 million, a high price touted in news releases that caught the attention of other local developers' blogs.

As the condo conversion began in fall 2006, the new owners started drawing citations from the county. At first, they were minor. In October 2006, just a few months after the purchase, the place was cited for failing to register a fire alarm. Then in January, a county inspector took pictures that showed wires hanging from a damaged ceiling; a black, crumbling bathroom wall; corroded and leaking water heaters; and several other instances of mold and disrepair. Notices of violation followed.

The inspector returned in August and took more pictures — more exposed wires, another corroded water heater, and a couple more ominous holes in ceilings. The buildings' elevators have been particularly troubled. They were last inspected in 2006, Chief Elevator Inspector Michael Chavez says, and received numerous violations. Although the owners do appear to be upgrading the machines now, Chavez says, "Under state law, the violations should have been corrected within 30 days and the units reinspected. That did not happen."

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Isaiah Thompson
Contact: Isaiah Thompson