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Investigations

Miami says it didn’t know he lived there before demolishing his home. Is the city lying?

 

After the city of Miami demolished Liberty City resident Michael Hamilton’s home last week, he slept in his yard for two days.

The building department had deemed the house unsafe and in violation of city code because it showed “signs of structural stress” and “advanced deterioration throughout” during an inspection in May 2019. Photos shot by the department and tucked in the file do seem to substantiate those descriptions.

And yet Building Director Ace Marrero insisted: Had the city known Hamilton, 70, was living there, it would have never just dumped him on the street. It would have helped him relocate ahead of the demolition. Nobody knew until the demolition crew arrived, he said.

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Hamilton, however, says they did know. Because he told them a week earlier.

Hamilton said he called the department on Aug. 18, the same day the city posted the handbill on his door on 45th Street serving notice that the demolition would occur within the next 10 days or soon after. He says he dialed the number on the paperwork and believes he spoke with the person whose name was listed above it: Unless he’s mistaken, that would be Rene Diaz, chief of the department’s unsafe structures division.

“He said the strangest thing...like ‘quasi-court something,’ ” Hamilton recalled about the city official explaining the process for obtaining the demolition order. Hamilton used that same wording — “quasi-court something” and “quasi-judicial something” — when recounting the interaction with two different Herald journalists on two different occasions.

A department notice reviewed by the Herald — one that had been sent to the deed holder, his cousin Richard Anderson, and returned unopened — also used the term “quasi-judicial,” suggesting it is a term commonly used when condemning a structure. Since Anderson resides in Gainesville and has a post office box there, Hamilton would not have seen it.

Neither the words “quasi judicial” nor “quasi court” were on the notice posted on the home before it was leveled.

Diaz denies that he or any unsafe structures inspectors spoke with Hamilton.

Hamilton’s attorney, David Winker, said his client’s use of the legal term “quasi” — well before Winker offered to represent him legally — makes clear that Hamilton had made contact with the city.

“Where the hell would he get that term from” other than in a conversation with someone in the building department? he said.

Hamilton said the building official told him that the department had talked to his cousin and that Anderson was aware of the pending demolition. City records indicate the department never made contact with Anderson. Certified letters sent to his P.O. box went unclaimed.

Michael Hamilton shows the notice that was posted to his door. The city then came and leveled the home without attempting to help him find housing assistance. Daniel A. Varela DVARELA@MIAMIHERALD.COM

Despite his conversation with someone at the city, when the city came in and knocked down the house, Hamilton ended up on the street in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic, complicating any effort to receive homeless services.

Representatives from the Miami Homeless Assistance Program showed up two days and two nights later, after Keith Lorren, from the family living next door, began posting on social media about what had happened. The officials offered Hamilton a homeless shelter placement, following a 14-day quarantine in a hotel. But by then, Lorren had already begun making his own hotel arrangement for Hamilton, funded by donations he has collected through Facebook and GoFundMe.

Lorren’s original goal was to raise at least $10,000 to cover the cost of the hotel room and replace the possessions Hamilton lost because of the demolition. He has since increased the goal to $20,000 to secure more permanent housing “just in case the city doesn’t help.”

Local affordable housing advocate Daniella Pierre said regardless of the state of Hamilton’s house, the city did not do enough to relocate him. “Instead of being proactive, now they’re going to be reactive,” she said. As soon as the city realized someone was living on the property, it should have notified Miami’s civil rights and fair housing groups as well as the American Red Cross “to ensure that fair housing rights are upheld to the fullest extent of the law,” Pierre said.

According to the building department, when there is a known tenant on a property set to be demolished, its policy is to send human services to offer relocation assistance. If the property is a single-family home like Hamilton’s but occupied by the owner, it is referred to the community redevelopment agency.

“If no one makes themselves known to the city as a person residing, either legally or illegally, at the property it is extremely difficult for the City of Miami to assist them with the resources available,” Marrero wrote in an email to the Herald.

According to city records, an inspector wrote that the house was “occupied by squatters” in a letter addressed to Anderson in May 2019.

“The city keeps implying ‘abandoned’ and ‘derelict,’ “ Hamilton said. “I never left.”

Frustrated by the department’s repeated claim that it did not know he lived there, Hamilton has grown distrustful that the city will follow through in offering assistance. Though he has now agreed to the 14-day quarantine the homeless assistance program offered, he said “theoretically” they will pick him up this coming Friday.

Until then, he’s sleeping in a Hampton Inn and watching the History Channel. “I’m just basically resting my muscles. My body just kind of aches all over,” he said.

Winker, the lawyer helping Hamilton with the city, has a contentious relationship with Miami, including representing a committee that sought to recall Commissioner Joe Carollo. Last month, he was hit with a code complaint for allegedly operating a business — in his case, a law office — out of his home at a time when tens of thousands of South Floridians are working out of their homes due to social distancing concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Winker, who has also provided legal advice to a friend and freelance journalist working on a project with the Miami Herald, began representing Hamilton earlier this week and sent the city a letter demanding all records pertaining to the property.

He also asked if Hamilton could address the City Commission, to which City Manager Art Noriega replied: “I think it would be appropriate to meet first.”

“I’m going to ask the city to build him back a house,” Winker said.

This story was originally published September 02, 2020 2:53 PM.

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