Residents of an aging North Miami Beach condo complex ordered evacuated last week over concerns about its structural integrity can get back into their units on Friday.
But only for a maximum of 15 minutes to retrieve essential items — and with a police officer as escort.
Aside from that brief opportunity for dozens of displaced residents, city leaders on Thursday doubled down on their contention that the Crestview Towers complex isn’t safe for occupation — rejecting the conclusions of an engineer hired by the homeowners association and leaving many residents scrambling for shelter. At a press conference, the city also released records showing more than $500,000 in fines for illegal construction, paint and other issues; as well as electrical problems and 18 different fire code violations.
The city ordered the building evacuated on Friday in the wake of the collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside as North Miami Beach joined a countywide audit of overdue inspections on older high-rises. Crestview is nine years behind on obtaining a mandatory 40-year recertification, which often forces associations to pay for expensive renovations and structural repairs.
“The condo association is really the main person at fault for letting this drag out for so many years.,” North Miami Beach Mayor Anthony DeFillipo told the Herald on Wednesday. “Until then, we’re not going to put anybody in danger.”
Mariel Tollinchi, an attorney for the Crestview association, told the Miami Herald on Wednesday that the city was not working in good faith to try to get owners back inside. While acknowledging the board could have acted with more urgency to submit the 40-year report, which was due in 2012, she argued the city should take into account a weekend survey from an engineer who found residents did not have to be displaced while repairs are made.
“They too have dropped the ball,” said Tollinchi. “What I can tell you is that it’s very easy for the city to come nine years later to shut down this building because it’s deemed unsafe. … At this point, it’s trying to show face.”
During a press conference Thursday morning, the city manager of North Miami Beach, Arthur Sorey, said the Crestview building was electrically and structurally unsafe. He referenced a Jan. 11 report by B & A Engineering Services conducted for the condo’s 40-year recertification that listed several cracked columns and visible spalling throughout the structure. He said the city had not ordered the building evacuated until last Friday because the association had not sent it to the city until July 2 — six months after it was done and just a little more than a week after the June 24 Champlain South collapse.
“I can’t stress enough, this is a very serious situation,” Sorey said.
But on Saturday, the day after the mandatory evacuation, a structural engineer hired by the condominium association inspected the building again. That engineer, Fernando Azcue, concluded in a 14-page report that the building’s structural integrity is in fair condition and residents could return while repairs were made.
But the city said that report did not “reference or directly refute” the findings from the report in January and requested that the condo submit a new 40-year recertification report that addresses the suggested repairs and submits it to the city in the correct format. In a statement, North Miami Beach’s building official J. Daniel Ozuna added that the condo had also not pulled any permits to make needed repairs since January.
The city said no residents would be allowed back in until the issue was resolved.
Tollinchi, the board attorney, said the estimated costs of the repairs have exceeded a million dollars, and that it is unclear if the condo association can afford the full costs of the repairs.
In the Thursday press conference, officials expressed other concerns as well, saying only one elevator was working — although some residents in the crowd shouted that two out of three elevators were working properly.
Police Chief Richard Rand of the North Miami Beach Police also said his department was investigating email allegations of past financial improprieties by the association.
“We are gonna get to the bottom of this,” he said. Tollinchi did not respond to a request for comment regarding the allegations from the police chief.
Tough housing market
As for Crestview residents, they are scrambling to find a place to live. Some are staying in hotels, while others are crashing at family members’ or friends’ houses.
The city announced Thursday that residents would be allowed into the building Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Only one representative from each family, accompanied by an officer, would be allowed in for 15 minutes at a time. Officials urged people not to grab any furniture or heavy items. They asked residents to get medications, clothes and any other items they need to keep living outside of the complex.
The Homeless Trust is currently housing 55 individuals, some young children, 6 dogs and 3 cats from the complex. Ron Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade’s Homeless Trust, urged residents to call the organization to arrange accommodations for the near future.
“We are not going to abandon the citizens of North Miami Beach who have otherwise been put out because of the condition of their building and the potential threat to their health and safety,” he said.
But Book also acknowledged to the Herald that with the COVID eviction moratorium expiring at the end of the month, the Homeless Trust is stretched thin. He said he has assured county representatives that “we do not have the resources financial and otherwise that could be needed” for large-scale evacuations.
“We know in the days to come there will be more buildings,” Book said. “Miami-Dade County is the toughest rental market from an affordability standpoint in the country. We’re in a terrible, terrible place when it comes to affordability.”
Other organizations, like the local American Red Cross, are also helping to house families. Some advocates have said several people have been living in their cars since the Friday evacuation.
Nori Morales was excited to celebrate her birthday in a few weeks and planned to have her visiting family stay in the apartment. Now, she is just hoping to find somewhere to live.
She lived in the condo complex for two years but is now staying in a friend’s house in Hallandale Beach. However, the friend needs her to move out soon, so she is hoping the Homeless Trust will help her out.
When she was evacuated from the building, she grabbed her Yorkie, Blue, and a suitcase, stuffed with jeans, a few other items and one pair of sandals.
Before the evacuation, she worked from home as a nail technician. Friday, she hopes to retrieve her nail equipment so she can begin making appointments and working again.
Estefania Grajales-Garcia, 25, lived in the towers with her husband and her two young children. They are now living in an apartment they found through her husband’s job. Their rent is about the same as at the Crestview Towers.
When she was evacuated, she was only able to get clothes. She said her 4- and 5-year-old children are nervous and miss their toys constantly. What they really need now is furniture, because their current living situation consists of a comforter and inflatable mattress they were able to buy after fleeing their apartment.
She said she tries not to cry in front of them, but the situation has taken a toll on her.
“It’s frustrating because all our things are there and we don’t have anything right now,” she said.