Landlord aims to evict Liberty City free clinic, food pantry after complaints about collapsed ceiling at their rental

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Liberty CIty
Dr. Armen Henderson, right, with Phil Agnew, co-founder of Black Men Build, and supporters at the opening of his free clinic in Liberty City on Feb. 26, 2022. Photo: Passion Ward

By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org

A corporate landlord is trying to evict a small Miami medical clinic, food pantry and community center that complained when a big chunk of their ceiling caved in.

The tenants finally got the attention of landlord Gator Investments by withholding rent for three months starting last November. But Gator’s response wasn’t constructive, according to Dr. Armen Henderson, who staffs the free clinic at 5505 NW 7th Ave.

He said the same day Gator had the roof patched, Jan. 24, the city delivered an eviction notice, which Henderson characterized as meaning, “Here you go, now get out.”

“They’re cavalier, like they’re doing us a favor, we should be grateful to be here,” said Henderson, an internist at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

“The roof continues to leak even to this day,” he said last week, pointing to telltale yellow blotches and streaks on the ceiling of his immaculate lab collection/patient waiting room. It took three days for the doctor and a colleague to lay the laminate floor.

TENANTS FIGHT FOR ‘UNSAFE’ RENTAL

Henderson said monthly rent has been $4,000 for the building with its two small, converted storefronts for the clinic, food pantry and meeting place on busy Northwest 7th Avenue in the Liberty City neighborhood.

Though local artworks brighten the interior, it’s nothing fancy. Instead of central air conditioning the building has old-fashioned wall units.

LIberty City
The 5505 NW 7th Ave. building with the Village F[ree]dge open for business on the left 
and the entrance to Black Men Build on the right. Doctors Within Borders shares the space 
on the right.  Photo: Noreen Marcus

Now Gator is in mediation with the three nonprofit renters — Henderson’s Doctors Within Borders, the Village (Free)dge and Black Men Build, said their lawyer Denise Ghartey of Community Justice Project in Miami.

She isn’t authorized to discuss the talks. Based on papers filed in the eviction case in Miami-Dade County Court, the tenants want a judge to determine how much rent they owe. They don’t want to move.

Miami code enforcement inspected the building, found it “unsafe”and in a March 25 letter ordered pre-approved repairs or demolition within nine months.

Henderson said installing a new roof at an estimated cost of $35,000 to $40,000 would go a long way toward resolving the problem.

LANDLORD HAS LEGAL ADVANTAGE

But since eviction and code enforcement run on separate tracks, Ghartey explained, a citation for safety violations doesn’t necessarily give the tenant any leverage.

“The city has recognized there are things that aren’t OK, but that doesn’t take away the landlord’s rights because the law so heavily favors the landlord,” Ghartey said. “The landlord doesn’t have to act according to any timeline that’s beneficial to the tenant.”

Here the landlord, Gator, seems to want nothing more than the back rent and to be rid of three unruly tenants.

Gator, which records indicate acquired the property in 2012, did not respond to emails Florida Bulldog sent to property manager Robert Nussbaum seeking comment. Likewise, company president & CEO James Goldsmith also did not respond to a request for comment.

Based in Miami Lakes, Gator is a privately held commercial real estate investment firm that owns and manages more than 10 million square feet of property in 22 states and Puerto Rico, its website says. Walmart, Publix and Dollar Tree are among featured clients.

Goldsmith started Gator in 1986, the website says. Today, the company generates an estimated $5.74 million in annual sales, according to Dun & Bradstreet.

LIBERTY CITY ‘PRIME REAL ESTATE’

Ghartey researched and mapped Gator properties in the Greater Miami area. More than 40 are marked on her unofficial map; about two-thirds are located east of I-95 and many of them are clumped together, but the Northwest 7th Avenue address stands alone.

Attorney Denise Ghartley

Henderson said he thinks the company is accumulating blocks of land for future projects.

“When Miami Beach floods in 30 years, this will be Miami Beach,” he said, because Liberty City occupies a higher inland elevation. “This is prime real estate.”

In the 1940s and 1950s the Northwest 7th Avenue commercial corridor was part of a thriving middle-income black community that also included nearby Allapattah and Brownsville. Muhammad Ali lived in Allapattah. Sam Cooke and Sammy Davis Jr. sang in the Hampton House hotel’s ritzy jazz lounge.

Decades of hard times followed, but every so often Liberty City has a slight resurgence. One is happening now.

‘HUB FOR SOCIAL CHANGE’

A recent article in the Miami Herald highlighted the area’s “transformation to [a] hub for social change.” Exhibit A: the three nonprofits housed in the 5505 building.

The transformation requires dedication, money and muscle grease.

“This place was shit” when the clinic acquired the space in February 2021, Henderson said. He heard the previous occupant was a crack house – “you could smell it”— that police raided and shut down. (Miami police were unable to confirm this rumor when contacted by Florida Bulldog.)

Liberty City
Exam room at Dr. Henderson’s clinic. Photo: Passion Ward

“The place had been destroyed,” Henderson said. “We spent $40,000 just to get it looking OK.”

Once the doors opened, people came flocking in. Village (Free)dge said it feeds more than 150 families a day; Black Men Build’s gathering place is popular for recreation and dialogue to raise social consciousness.

Sometimes Henderson gets informal referrals from the food bank that, for example, so-and-so’s hand looks bad and needs attention.

The clinic is pretty much a one-man operation, although Henderson says he is finalizing plans with Jackson and the University of Miami to make it a training facility, and that volunteers are signing up to help staff it. . Henderson comes on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays after he works the overnight shift at Jackson. Afterwards he goes home to sleep and relax with his wife and two small children. 

Henderson does everything from examining newborns to prescribing hypertension meds for the elderly, arranging patient visits to eye specialists and cleaning up. Next month he plans to expand into case management for people who can’t afford comprehensive medical care.

NO THANKS TO FREE-SPACE OPTION

Soon after the nonprofits moved in 14 months ago,they had to deal with the fallout from a roof that’s likely past its expiration date, meaning mold, leaking ceilings and walls, water damage and plagues of rodents and bugs.

“The landlord responded with only patch-up jobs,” Ghartey wrote in court documents. After the ceiling collapsed in November and left a gaping hole, the tenants had to spend time cleaning instead of serving clients and hosting year-end events, she wrote.

They went on a rent strike, which state law allows under certain severe circumstances. Still to be determined by the court is whether circumstances at the 5505 building qualify.

“I don’t think they thought we were gonna fight,” Henderson said of Gator. “I said, ‘You could use us as a model presentation for your website. Instead you’re letting our roof cave in.’ “

Henderson said the nonprofits have been offered rent-free space elsewhere. But after investing so much to turn the building into a communal haven, they’d rather stay.

“It feels like we’re being forced out,” he said, “and that’s not what we planned.”

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