North Miami Beach’s Crestview Evacuees Struggle With Weeks of Displacement

NORTH MIAMI BEACH, Fla.—The city’s closure of the 156-unit Crestview Towers Condominium on July 2 displaced dozens of families overnight. Three weeks later, they remain in a housing limbo made worse by financial struggles and complicated medical conditions.

Ligia Mora is staying at a Motel 6 near Miami International Airport while caring for her two sons, one of whom is autistic, and an elderly aunt with diabetes. She doesn’t have a kitchen to cook meals, and her aunt needs help bathing. Her autistic son is missing his therapy sessions. On the weekends, the hallways smell of marijuana, she says.

“This is no place for children,” said Ms. Mora.

On the heels of the Surfside condo collapse, city officials have been more closely scrutinizing older structures. Crestview, where Ms. Mora had lived since 2006, was built near a canal and a short walk to Maule Lake in 1970, according to its website. The 10-story structure had been overdue on its recertification, a required inspection for aging buildings in Miami-Dade County, when city officials decided to evacuate it, to the surprise of residents.

Residents of the Crestview Towers held a news conference on July 17. The city’s closure of the 156-unit building has displaced dozens of families.

Residents of another Surfside building, the Regent Palace, began evacuating on July 9, a day after an engineer hired by the condo association found problems with the structural integrity of the three-story building. By Wednesday, most residents had voluntarily left.

Lawyers say more buildings could face similar fates as officials become more vigilant about building safety, potentially spelling trouble for residents, especially those who live in structures that have fallen into disrepair.

“Building departments are about to wake up and go on a rampage,” said Eric Glazer, a condo lawyer in Florida. And, going forward, he expects engineers and officials to sound louder alarms at the chance a building could fall.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava on June 26 ordered audits of all residential buildings five stories or higher and 40 years and older, and later expanded the scope to buildings four stories or higher, according to a spokesperson. As of the date the audit was announced, there were 469 enforcement cases for multifamily structures undergoing an unsafe-structures review in unincorporated Miami-Dade county. Of those, 24 were given priority for inspection because they were four stories or higher, according to Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources data, which includes only unincorporated sections of the county over which it has jurisdiction and less than half of its population. The mayor is encouraging the rest of the county, made up of 34 different municipalities, including North Miami Beach, to follow the same guidelines.

Ms. Levine Cava said the county is prepared to open more shelters if needed and is working with organizations like the Red Cross and Homeless Trust to have support systems on standby. She said the county is looking for ways to leverage federal Covid-19 stimulus money to help fund the effort, she said.

The fallout from the Crestview evacuation offers a glimpse into what the future might look like for other Florida residents who may need to be evacuated.

Julia Zaionz has been staying in a hotel since being evacuated from her home at the Crestview Towers.

“I feel out of my element, out of my world,” said Julia Zaionz, 65 years old, an artist and renter who lived on the eighth floor. “It’s this feeling of instability.”

Some residents are staying with friends or relatives; others, like Ms. Zaionz and Ms. Mora, are staying in hotels. They say they are unsure whether or not they will ever be able to return to their homes. They have lingering questions about who is ultimately responsible and are angered at what they say were persistent problems that went unaddressed by the condo board and city officials for months, including faulty elevators and unrepaired floors following flooding on multiple levels. Since the evacuation, the building’s condo board has been named as a defendant in at least one lawsuit by four unit owners for allegedly failing to make repairs.

The condo board didn’t respond to requests for comment, but in statements posted to Crestview’s website this week, the condo board told residents “there are other buildings that have been evacuated, and there will be more.” The association said it was coordinating with residents hoping to collect their belongings before the building officially reopens. Move-outs will begin June 26, with a limit of three units a day.

“This [process] is sickening,” said Ms. Zaionz, who is now searching for a storage unit, plus a new place to live. “It’s horrible.”

Crestview residents said they didn’t know that in January an engineer had deemed their building uninhabitable and that the condo board hadn’t turned over that information to the city until July 2, following a North Miami Beach audit precipitated by the Surfside collapse. That same day they were told to leave.

Later, in a letter dated July 16, the city listed almost 40 violations, including several related to fire safety and proper lighting. The city said that, at a minimum, the fire alarm, emergency generator, fire pump and standpipe needed fixing before residents could return to their units.

In a statement, the Crestview condo board told residents ‘there are other buildings that have been evacuated, and there will be more.’

PHOTO: MARIA ALEJANDRA CARDONA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

North Miami Beach chief of staff Willis Howard says buildings are able to get away with delaying their recertifications by applying for permits to fix problems, but then simply letting the permits expire.

“Unfortunately they have figured out a way to kick this down the road by telling municipalities they’re working on something, they pull a permit, and then let it expire two years later.”

He says Crestview Towers had an expired permit to fix the fire alarm system in the building, for example.

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The building has also racked up nearly $600,000 in fines, including for “illegal construction,” that go back years, according to documents released by North Miami Beach.

The day of the evacuation, Harold Sarduy, a husband and father of an 8-year-old boy, said he saw his neighbors running in the hall, tugging luggage and looking scared. Kids were crying. “It felt like we were on the Titanic,” Mr. Sarduy, 43, recalled.

Later, “I felt totally depressed,” he said. “The anxiety is ceaseless. I can’t sleep at night because I don’t know what’s going to happen to us. Where are we going to go?”

Since moving into Crestview last year, rents have gone up, he says, and he fears his family might be priced out of the neighborhood. Currently in a hotel, they are looking for permanent housing with the help of a Miami-based homeless-prevention organization called Camillus House, he said.

Ligia Mora’s children, Pablo, left, and Kevin, in the room at a Motel 6 where the family has been temporarily relocated.

Camillus House is paying for 35 hotel rooms through the end of the month, housing 83 Crestview residents, according to Hilda Fernandez, the organization’s chief executive. After that, they will extend on a case-by-case basis. In all, they are providing temporary housing and relocation assistance for 152 people, including 34 minors and several pets, she said. Other organizations are providing food and counseling services, she said.

As they grapple with housing insecurity, residents must make the hard choice of whether they want to go back, if given the chance.

For tenants, the evacuation released them from their leases, lawyers said, but they have few options for restitution on moving expenses and none for emotional trauma.

“Tenants have very little claim for damages here, unfortunately,” said Mr. Glazer, the condo lawyer.

Owners still need to pay their mortgages, and their association fees, he said.

Beatriz Isaza holds her daughter as they evacuate the Crestview Towers.

PHOTO: DEBORAH ACOSTA/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Beatriz Isaza, 42, who evacuated her apartment with her 6-month-old daughter in less than 15 minutes, said she is still making her mortgage payments. She has ceased paying the board maintenance and special assessment fees until she hears more about what will be done.

“What if in the worst case scenario, they say the building is no good, and they have to demolish it?” said Ms. Isaza, who’s staying in her brother’s living room with her baby. ”So then what? I’m going to keep paying for air?”

Mr. Glazer said unit owners in the collapsed building in Surfside face the same predicament: “They still have to pay their mortgage every month, even though there’s nothing there.”

—Alfonso Duran contributed to this article.

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