A mop, a bucket, and bottles of bleach line the wall by the door in Kiara Canady’s barren, one-bedroom place at the Stonybrook Apartments in Riviera Beach, a low-income housing complex located on Martin Luther King Boulevard just off I-95. The slim African American 22-year-old says she mops the tile floor every night to keep the mold and mildew at bay.
But every morning, she wakes up and finds her work was fruitless. Management wouldn’t allow her to keep a welcome mat outside her door, which made it hard to keep grime at bay. Mold is still growing out of her air vent. "Everybody be sick," Canady says. "All of us got mold."
Tired of living with rats, roaches and mold, Canady and scores of other tenants are trying to force the place's managers, Cleveland-based Millennia Management Holdings, to complete sorely needed work. Eleven of them are even withholding rent. “Nobody should be paying rent right now if things haven’t got fixed,” says Crystal Stukes, who has lived on the property for eight years. “We’ll pay when we get real repairs." Stukes, Canady and other tenants are frustrated because of what they call a series of broken promises.
Though it is managed by Millennia, Stonybrook is owned by faith-based organization Global Ministries Foundation. In 2016, News4Jax, a Jacksonville TV station, detailed in a series of broadcasts and online articles how Global Ministries was letting tenants in another federally subsidized complex in Jacksonville live in rat, roach and mold-infested apartments.
After the news reports, Senator Marco Rubio called for a criminal investigation into Global Ministries, saying the company ran its "disgusting" apartments like "slumlords." After Global Ministries put 15 apartments in Georgia, Florida and Tennessee up for sale, Millennia was brought on as management in February 2017 as a first step to purchasing it.
At first, it seemed to tenants that Millennia would actually fix things up. Two months after Millennia began managing the properties, Rubio tweeted the company had made progress in Riviera Beach.
But a dozen residents at Stonybrook interviewed by New Times say Millennia has actually made no progress; in fact, it's made things worse. "Why keep wasting our money and just waiting and waiting and waiting?" Stukes says. "I feel like we’re paying to die. You guys know what’s wrong with the building, get it done and stop taking our money.”
Jeff Crossman, Millennia's public relations manager, says the company's hands are tied since it has yet to actually purchase the properties. Even though Millennia vowed to fix the code violations when it began to manage some of Global Ministries properties, Crossman says Millennia is still “at the mercy” of whatever funds its predecessor makes available for repairs. "It is property dependent, unfortunately," he says.
Crossman says the company's policy is to make repairs within 48 hours if a tenant submits an electronic work order. But tenants say that's not happening: Porsche Pitts, who is 30 years old and has lived in the complex for more than six years, gestures to a two-foot tall hole in her wall. She says it caved in after her eight-year-old son leaned on it. She adds that she submitted a repair order two years ago. "[Management] told me to stop coming in and writing notes," she says. "I said 'If you fix it I won’t need to come in any more.' "
Last week, code enforcement condemned 30 of the hundreds of apartments the property, which is nearly 50 years old. At a city council meeting this past Monday night, Ladi March, the building official for Riviera Beach, said those apartments should be deemed uninhabitable due to the black mold, roaches, broken fire alarms, and outdated fire extinguishers.
A day after the units were condemned, Millennia asked code enforcement to reinspect. Millennia claims it has already repaired 15 out of the 30 condemned units. “I’m not sure how you get rid of a roach infestation in a matter of a few days,” March said at the Monday city council meeting.
Malik Leigh, an attorney who is representing tenants. is also suspicious. He says a Millennia representative told him in a meeting that the company's maintenance employees aren’t licensed by the state of Florida to fix and clean for mold in the units. That representative could not be reached for comment, but Crossman said: “I can’t speak to that. You have to understand. Malik is advocating for clients and has to generate business for himself.”
Millennia offered to move some of the tenants who were living in condemned units into news one, but that “just kicks the can down the road,” says Leigh. One of his clients, Vickonda Williams, said the employees just spray-painted over the mold in her unit. “Their fixes are only painting over mold and concealing it, which is exactly what one employee told me he was instructed to do,” Leigh says.
Rubio’s office issued a press release on July 13 about code enforcement's findings, writing, "It is our hope that this ownership change will lead to direct results for the tenants of all properties in question." A representative from Rubio's Palm Beach office also offered to visit Stonybrook, but Stukes, who is the head of the Stony Brook Resident Council, wants the Senator to take a tougher stance against Millennia. She's vehement the company is responsible for the current conditions. "That’s bull crap,” she says. “... If you guys coming to take a look, you guys just trying to cover your tracks. There’s no need to look at the same roaches, same rats, same mold, same buildings, same nasty communities. … [Rubio] already saw what he saw. We don’t want him to come.”
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Asked to comment for this story, Rubio's press secretary Olivia Perez-Cubas wrote in an email that the senator and his office have visited the property "dozens of times" and worked with local officials to monitor Stonybook. "No federal elected official has done more on Stonybrook than Senator Rubio. ... his effort to highlight the abuses committed by the landlord are a major reason why they have relinquished management and soon ownership of 37 properties. He intends to continue this effort until the situation at Stonybrook is resolved.”
Adam Wasserman, an organizer with the Palm Beach Tenants Union, has been helping Stukes organize tenants for the past several months. “They tried all the mechanisms, going all the routes, trying to call HUD,” he says. “We’re hoping this could be a leverage point that gets the repairs they finally deserve, that they need, that management is legally obligated to make.”
Canady, the resident who mops daily with bleach, has lived at Stonybrook for two years. In August 2017, the second floor of her old building was gutted in a fire. After that, water would leak through to her first floor apartment, which fostered mold. She was relocated after the building was condemned six months ago, but her new place isn't much better: She says her ceiling could soon fall in.
“It’s not supposed to have the black stuff on the side,” Canady says. “I pray to God we’re not taking a shower and the whole thing falls down.”