Property managers at condos are coping with new schemes — some criminal, others plain irritating — arising from foreclosures.
Someone had kicked the door in on the foreclosure on the 33rd floor at The Club at Brickell Bay. Last week, Lori Rice, the building’s property manager, pushed it open. Inside, she found the tell-tale signs of a squatter: a mattress on the floor, a few toiletries in the bathroom.
”Clearly, a man was staying in there,” Rice said, adding that she called the police.
When police arrived on Monday they found the marble floors splashed with black paint. The man had fled, leaving destruction in his wake — along with a change of clothes in the washing machine.
|Among the decidedly low-rent problems plaguing South Florida’s luxury condo market, squatters are the latest headache to arise from the glut of vacant foreclosures in some of Miami’s toniest condominiums.At a recent meeting at the Brickell on the River North, a room full of property managers sat down to commiserate over a slew of other troubles: Impostor landlords leasing units they do not own, collecting deposits and rent from unsuspecting tenants, and a rash of vandalism and burglaries. Investor-owners, desperate to turn a dollar, are even renting to tourists by the day, undercutting local hotels at bargain rates.
”When you come in with luggage, it’s kind of obvious,” said the outspoken Rice, who admits her building has been hit harder than the rest. ”They are advertising on
Property Manager Lori Rice walks across the paint-splattered floor of a penthouse condominium vandalized by a squatter at The Club at Brickell Bay.
Expedia.” During the 90-minute meeting, attended by cops and lawyers from the state, stories were shared and solutions discussed.
”We foresee [crime] becoming a major problem, and that’s why we’re addressing it immediately,” said Officer Jeffrey Giordano, who patrols the Brickell area and was at the meeting.
The mini-condo crime wave comes at a bad time for the buildings’ community associations, many of which are grappling with financial hardship from unpaid maintenance fees on foreclosures. Fiscal woes make taking action difficult.
”Most associations are not inclined to incur the legal expense to remove someone from a unit that has been abandoned or [that is] in bank foreclosure because the legal expense is unlikely to be recoverable,” said Kenneth Direktor, a condo attorney with Hollywood-based Becker & Poliakoff.
Rice, 30, took over management of The Club in December, riding in like a sheriff to establish order in a building overrun with outlaws. She said the problems resulted from mortgage fraud that produced an explosion of absentee owners and sketchy tenants since the building opened in late 2004. The Club has more than 260 units in foreclosure.
After taking the job, she immediately deactivated 8,000 access cards for the building’s 640 units, incurring the wrath of many residents. After forcing everyone to reapply, she whittled the number to 1,400. Several squatters have been evicted over the past six months because of strict new registration policies, Rice said.
”No one lives in my building for free,” Rice said.
Realtor lock boxes, which contain keys, and neon eviction stickers from the county announce to everyone units are vacant, Direktor said.
`THANK GOD, HE’S GONE’
Unlike the homeless in need of shelter or refugees displaced by natural disasters or war, it is not clear if this breed of freeloaders is as down on their luck.
Paola Arboleda, manager of the Mark Yacht Club on Brickell Bay, said two months ago residents noticed someone hopping among various vacant units. A little snooping revealed the interloper was a mortgage broker.
”We didn’t know who he was paying or if he was paying,” Arboleda said. ”Thank God, he’s gone,” Arboleda said. Since lenders have tightened underwriting standards and curbed fraud, the problem is easier to control, she said.
But most squatters aren’t in the units to just hang their hats, Giordano said.
”They are probably involved in prostitution, burglary and other criminal activity,” Giordano said. He suspects many cases are the work of an organized ring.
`I STARTED CRYING’
Ada Portillo recently fell victim to one new scheme. The single mother needed a short-term rental while awaiting delivery of her condo at Met I Miami. She posted an ad on Craigslist, got a quick reply, and ended up in a lovely new place at Loft 2 in downtown Miami. She paid the $3,150 for a three-month lease up-front. The BMW-driving con man even helped her move in.
”He was very nice,” Portillo said.
Two weeks later, the real owner surfaced and evicted her. She was out the money. After a little detective work, Portillo found the swindler had stolen the identity of a Mexican pizza maker in New Jersey. Miami police support her story and are on the case.
”I started crying. I didn’t know what to do,” Portillo said. The incident soured her on the condo lifestyle. She plans on walking away from her deposit at the Met I. Police said the scheme is happening at single-family homes as well.
How squatters find their way into buildings is anyone’s guess. Most require entry using a key card and are manned by a concierge. Some buildings don’t automatically deactivate cards and fobs of former residents either. ”If a building doesn’t have more security than just a front desk, it’s going to be pretty easy to get around,” Direktor said.
Miami Police Cmdr. Lorenzo Whitehead is urging property managers to establish Citizens’ Crime Watch programs to combat the problems. Instead of recruiting block captains, who take watch shifts in neighborhoods, Lorenzo said floor captains would pace hallways and circle the building.
”You have to be aggressive in addressing these issues,” Whitehead said. So far, though, the idea is being received with a collective cocked eyebrow. Ann Marie Procacci, a member of the Point View Association, which represents several, smaller condo buildings on Brickell Bay Drive, feared condo commando-types could take the idea too far.
”The nosy-neighbor system is better than that,” Procacci said.
Managers are installing cameras at front desks. Rice snaps a mug shot of every visitor to the building.
At the meeting, they were urged to get tougher about scheduling move-ins and getting tenants to register. Several have banned lock boxes. Rice is taking them and ripping down eviction notices.
”I’m am trying to restore people’s quality of life,” she said.
“This is a nice community; I want people to feel safe and secure and enjoy living here.”