MIAMI — Facing criticism over his stewardship of an apartment building with a few crumbling balconies and a balky elevator, the mayor of the town where the Champlain Towers South fell has ordered tenants of his Miami Beach complex to leave the premises to make way for repairs, and declared their leases “terminated.”
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett, in a Thursday night email to tenants of the Lois Apartments on Normandy Isle, ordered residents to leave in the next 45 days so that “a tremendous amount of work” can be done on the structure, which was battered by Hurricane Irma in 2017.
“We regret that this work will create potentially dangerous conditions for residents,” Burkett wrote in the email, titled “Lease Termination.”
The building at 2001 Bay Dr. has had lingering problems for years, and was slapped with an “Unsafe Structures” violation by Miami Beach’s Building Department after a tree fell and damaged four of its balconies during the hurricane four years ago.
The balconies were never fixed. One balcony’s railings are tied together with rope. In the balcony one floor up, more than half of the railing is gone.
Last month, some tenants went public with their complaints on social media, in the Miami Herald and with other news outlets. Now, it looks like they’re out.
In the email to residents, Burkett said the elevator will be repaired, and the building will undergo a 40-year inspection, which will be completed one year early. The work will take 60 to 90 days and unused rent and security deposits will be refunded, Burkett wrote.
“That work will make it untennable (sic) to continue to have tenants living in the building while the work is underway,” he wrote.
Burkett said the situation is “very unhappy” for both him and the residents, but that he made the decision to vacate the building out of safety concerns. The elevator was being fixed Friday afternoon, so those moving out will not have to carry their belongings down the stairs, he said.
Burkett said that when the work is done, he will be happy to welcome back what he called the “good tenants.”
Ramiro Picos, who lives on the fourth floor of the Lois Apartments, said Burkett’s explanation is “nonsense.”
The building is in bad shape, Picos says. But his balcony is not broken and he said workers would have plenty of space to do their jobs while letting people stay in the building.
“I don’t think I’ll be in danger,” he said.
Picos, 31, said he doesn’t know if tenants will be allowed back in the building. But after he and others went public with their criticism of the maintenance at the building, he isn’t sure Burkett would even want him back.
“I have got to find a new place,” he said.
Picos also worried about whether he’d be able to move his belongings: A resident who spoke to the Miami Herald at 4:45 p.m. Friday said the elevator was not yet operable.
A third tenant, Janna Clasman, 38, is a single mother who moved into the Lois Apartments in March. She said her 5-year-old daughter just started school up the street from her new place, and that she can’t afford nearby places given the high demand and rising rents in the Miami area.
“This couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” she said, noting that her apartment has had no issues aside from some unwelcome pests. “I think they just want us out of the way. Then he can raise the rent when it’s all said and done.”
Clasman expressed concern for her neighbors, too, one of whom is elderly and the other who has a son with a disability.
The issues at the building, which have lingered for about four years, gained attention last month when a neighboring resident complained about the situation on social media. Miami Beach issued a “Final Notice” at the building and ordered that safety netting be placed beneath the balconies to catch any falling debris.
Burkett’s real estate business, Burkett Companies, has owned the building since 1990. He has said delays with the city’s permitting process — and challenges hiring and retaining contractors after the hurricane, and later during COVID — have stalled the planned demolition and replacement of the balconies.
In 2019, Miami Beach expressed dissatisfaction with the pace of work on the storm-related repairs. Miami Beach spokeswoman Melissa Berthier said after “no action was being taken by the property to make needed repairs,” the Building Department referred the issue in 2019 to the Special Master, who has demanded regular progress reports.
Burkett said the assertion that he had taken no action is wrong. He applied for a master permit in 2018 to remove and replace the damaged balconies. His plans called for a change in the design of the balconies, which required appearing before Miami Beach’s Design Review Board. The board approved the plans, and the city later issued the master permit. But two more permits were still needed — one for the new railings and one for the sliding glass doors, Berthier said. A contractor applied for the new permits this past April, and the permit for the railings was issued in May.
In April, Burkett’s contractor also applied to revise the master permit. The city on Friday said the contractor has yet to submit required plans to proceed with the revision, which would address the balconies.
Burkett accused the city of losing the copies of the plans he said he’d submitted, calling the city’s statements to the Miami Herald “a fabrication.” On Friday, he told building officials in an email he would be submitting the plans again.
The Friday email exchanges grew heated, as Burkett repeatedly slammed Miami Beach Building Director Ana Salgueiro for telling the Miami Herald that Burkett had not submitted plans to get approval for the balcony work.
“Tell the paper that your office’s schizophrenic Herald statement that we can’t start work without a permit, and in the same article, that we could have started work long ago to have demolished the balconies, was a PERFECT example of the horrible communication systems you have in place,” he wrote.
When asked Friday for an update on the permits for the balcony work, Berthier told the Herald that “they have a permit revision for the balconies that was applied for in April, but no plans have been submitted for review as of this email.”
(Miami Herald staff writer Martin Vassolo contributed to this report.)
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