The dark side of the boom
As the condo market cools, what happens to projects that haven’t broken ground yet? Portico in Miami is one of those. The Cameo Apartments still stand on that site, occupied now by vagrants and drug addicts.
BY AMY DRISCOLL AND LISA ARTHUR
NURI VALLBONA/MIAMI HERALD STAFF
The once spotless apartment is a gutted shell now, a place where junkies shoot up and urine saturates the carpet beneath layers of fast-food wrappers, tangled window blinds and broken glass.
Five months ago, it was the tiny but pin-neat home of Martha Pomare and her two boys. Now, the only trace of the former occupants is the white paint on the walls.
When the residents of the Cameo Apartments, 1825 NE Fourth Ave., were forced out in June by development plans, they found themselves on the dark side of Miami’s condo-building boom, which gobbled up affordable housing in favor of glitzy new high-rises.
But the Cameo still stands. Nothing new has been built there. Vagrants and addicts have moved in, and the building has been stripped of salvageable metal down to the light sockets.
Last month, the city issued a notice of code violations to the owners, including failure to board up a vacant building. And a for-sale sign has appeared in front of the Cameo for the property and the right to develop Portico, the 324-unit condo project approved for the site.
All around the dilapidated Cameo, new condo towers are nearing completion. But Miami’s overheated real-estate market has cooled, and projects that haven’t broken ground face increasingly difficult conditions. The future of those projects — Portico included — remains in question.
One of the Cameo’s owners, Luis Dominguez, said last week that the 43-story Portico project still will be developed. Victor J. Labruzzo, a partner with Dominguez in the project, said there is “serious interest from a very large developer in Tennessee.”
And there is interest from others, too, he said, but the inquiries are not coming at the same frenzied pace as during the height of the boom.
AWAITING A COMEBACK
”It’s a very difficult market right now, and everyone is trying to make sense of it,” he said. “I’ve been through these kinds of slowdowns in San Francisco and New York. When the market comes back, it soars.”
The big question is how long until the rebound, said Miami real-estate analyst David Dabby. Right now, there are thousands of new condos and more coming onto the market at a time of reduced demand.
”So, right now it’s slow,” Dabby explained. “The banks recognize there’s a slowdown, so naturally they’ve become much more conservative about financing projects.”
Many planned projects have stalled, he said. In many cases, those projects already had cleared out rental apartments and knocked the buildings down.
”If they had known the projects were going to bog down, they would have kept the buildings and collected rents to offset taxes,” Dabby said.
At the Cameo, Dominguez has to deal with squatters instead of renters, and now he has code violations as well. He said his company will demolish the building.
City officials said no hearing date has been set on the code violations, which Cameo Apartments Ltd. had until last Tuesday to correct. The company asked for a 30-day extension to interview demolition companies.
For the former residents of the Cameo, it will be a relief when the building finally comes down. It stands as a reminder of the afternoon they found notices on their doors giving them less than three weeks to move. A new condo was taking the building’s place.
The tenants, who had no leases, received their deposits back and ultimately were allowed to stay in their $500-a-month apartments for up to six weeks without paying rent. Dominguez said his company, which bought the Cameo in 2004, allowed renters to stay in the apartments for two years without raising their rents while the Portico project was being planned.
But the search for new homes was still a mad scramble. Some ended up paying more than they could afford for new rentals in the tighter market. Others doubled up with roommates or left the state.
”Jiminy Cricket, all that fuss to get us out of there and nothing’s been built,” said Sharon Frank, a retiree and music minister who now lives in an apartment 11 blocks north of the Cameo.
She peeked into her old apartment recently when she saw the door open.
”I saw minor destruction, a lot of junk,” she said. “I guess they’re preparing for demolition.”
Another former resident, Malika Kabbouchi, who helped her neighbors by finding a lawyer to represent them for free, said she continues to drive by the complex, waiting for signs of construction.
”Every time I go by there, I feel disgusted. . . . Right now, it is an eyesore,” she said. “It’s just outrageous to me that people were forced to move immediately and have their lives in chaos.”
Inside the Cameo, the newest residents are sleeping off last night’s high. Nearly every apartment has been vandalized. In one, green garbage bags filled with trash are piled in the middle of the living room. In another, a wall is smeared with feces.
Larry, stretched out on a lounge chair in a second-floor apartment, keeps headphones on to drown out the construction racket. He has lived in the complex ”a couple months,” he said.
He’s 52, from Boston originally, and works three nights a week, for $7 an hour, parking cars downtown.
Is it dangerous to live in a room with near-strangers, no windows and no privacy? He shrugs.
”I sleep in the closet,” he said. “Three walls, and you just have to watch the doorway.”
Martha Pomare, the former tenant who lived a few doors from the apartment where Larry now sleeps, says that learning what has become of the complex stings.
”We didn’t have to leave,” she said. “We could have been there all this time.”
Miami Herald staff writer Matthew Haggman contributed to this story.
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