"Condo, schmondo," the old woman says, adjusting the netted kerchief that keeps her hair from blowing in the breeze. "As long as you've got your health."
"You can afford to say that," another woman retorts: "Your son is a rich stockbroker."
These women moved into 800 West Ave. on Miami Beach 13 years ago, when the apartments were built. They came here from northern cities when landlords were begging for tenants. Some were given several months of free rent if they signed leases. The leases lasted for five years.
On warm afternoons when the wind is merciful, the women gather in a circle on the veranda. They feed on the view of the bay, the sun, the talk. In the past they discussed sickness, children, grandchildren, husbands, Hadassah, bingo, books, knitting and recipes.
Now they talk exclusively about one thing: real estate, condos. Where are they going to live?
"You know what I told my son?" another woman asks. Her grooming is immaculate. The bright pink in her printed blouse is picked up by the pink in her slacks. She is wearing a white sweater of a loose knit that settles about her shoulders like a cloud. There is a discernible vogue of white sweaters among these old women. "I told my son, he doesn't help me find a place to live, I'll move in with him and ruin his love life."
The laughter that follows is brittle as old bones.
Even before it happens, the tenants sense it, the way a bird senses winter. Condo conversion.
Often it is merely a matter of seeing the obvious: new carpets, a cleaner lobby. These days there is nothing more unsettling than a landlord suddenly committed to a rash of repairs. From then on the progression is as cadenced as seasons: the sale of the building, the panic of the tenants, and finally, in time, the forced migration of hundreds of people. It is, say the tenants at 800 West Ave., like breaking up a big family.
"Many of us have lost our husbands or wives since moving here," one woman said. "We have become people who live alone, where we haven't lived alone before. We walked very straight 13 years ago. Today we are walking with canes. Or we are in wheelchairs. We don't know what to do."
The wind has picked up now. It sweeps over the rough-textured floors at Plaza West. It is like glass, cold and invisible. The women who remain outdoors huddle in their white cardigans, against the wind and the future. They are no longer laughing.
Nothing is exempt. Even trailer parks are going condo.
No one is immune, from the desires to make a killing, from the fears of displacement.
Real estate is lust and guilt, by the square foot.
The current state of real estate in south Florida's Dade and Broward counties is not an emergency. It is worse.
In Dade and Broward counties, the percentage of rental vacancies is one-half percent. That means only one out of every 200 apartments is available for rental. On Miami Beach, only one out of 500 is for rent.
City planners elsewhere describe a 3 percent vacancy rate as a crisis. In Washington, Los Angeles and New York, condo conversions are subject to severe restrictions when vacant apartments are scarce. But not here, although the City Council in Lauderhill, a city of 40,000 that is 25 miles north of Miami, recently passed a six-month emergency moratorium on conversions.
The median-priced used home in Broward County cost 25 percent more at the end of 1979 than it did the previous year. In Dade County, a median-priced home cost 23 percent more.
If a person does not want to buy a house and prefers apartment life, but can't find a unit to rent, there is, according to the developers, one answer: condos.
That's short for condominium, from the Latin con, meaning with, and dominium, meaning ownership. Ownership with others. Buyers don't own their apartment walls: Legally, they own only the space between them. The structure and common areas are owned by everybody.
Developers are fond of stressing that monthly mortgage payments are fixed throughout the years. They are a kind of rent control.
The developers are less fond of pointing out that the monthly assessment fee to maintain the common areas sometimes rises drastically over the years. The fee is paid to the condominium associations, which consists of all the condominium owners.
Condos are a marriage of private and communal ownership. "To condo" means to take an apartment building, change its legal status by creating many individual owners rather than one landlord, and then to sell the units at prices approaching -- often surpassing -- the price of single-family homes.
The word "condoed" has two meanings. To a person who has bought a unit and is pleased with the purchase, it means a roof, equity, survival. To the tenant who has been displaced and cannot find a rental unit, it means despair.
In 1978 in Dade County, there were 1,500 condo conversions. In 1979 there were 6,000. In Broward County last year, there were another 2,500 to 3,000.
Predictions for 1980 are even higher -- perhaps 15,000 or 16,000 units in Dade County.
It is everywhere.
Last fall, Brickell Townhouse, a luxury rental building on Brickell Avenue, was converted by Jerry Gross and Larry Mendelson. All 354 units were sold in less than 30 days.
Americana Village Mobile Home Association sells plots of land and manufactured homes for between $30,000 and $45,000. At L'il Abner Mobile Home Park, the residents of 692 units have wondered for months what was going to happen.
On Jan. 5, 1980, the newspapers carried this item: King's Creek, South Dade, 600 units. "Largest condo conversion ever attempted in South Dade."
Not for long.
Jan. 20, 1980. King's Creek Village, South Dade, 1,067 units. "Largest condo conversion ever attempted in South Florida."
Larry Mendelson, of Gross and Mendelson, says the person who has been paying low rent has been lucky too long: "The problem is he has gotten himself a super bargain, and God bless him for it. I would love to buy gasoline for 29 cents, but I can't do it anymore. All of a sudden he is faced with the inevitable."
Jerry Gross: "I don't see a morality issue. Government has created this problem. Rents are at an artificial low."
Larry Mendelson: "The morality is . . . a person signs a lease, a contract for however long, agreeing that, 'I, as tenant, pay the rent and at the end of that period I owe you, the landlord, nothing. I ask for my security deposit back and I walk.' Renters have no long-term obligation. A rental lease is like a built-in divorce in a marriage."
"Everybody makes the converter a bad guy," says Charles Schnier. "But he's not. He is a businessman."
Schnier purchased Triton Towers and the Corinthian, both high-rise oceanfront apartment buildings on Miami Beach, last spring. Triton Towers was a lot like Plaza West, filled almost exclusively with retired people. These were not the truly disenfranchised, truly pathetic old people of Miami Beach: the shopping bag ladies who scrounge around the garbage bins of grocery stores, tattered women who ignore traffic and have the lost air of people who hope the pennies and the hours have the grace to run out simultaneously.
The people at Triton Towers were prosperous by comparison. The elderly couples who cohabitated did so to avoid marriage in order not to jeopardize their estates, the lifetime savings earmarked for children and grandchildren after death. They were not desperately trying to pool their Social Security checks. These were people who knew enough to commit suicide by not eating or overdosing on prescription medicine. They would not run out in front of cars; they would never risk broken bones when they wanted death.
They were told to "buy or get out." Eighty-five percent of the tenants at the 550-unit building got out, and some who left died soon afterwards. Rumors circulated among the residents who remained that their deaths were caused by slow emotional suicide over the upset, a breakdown in the will. These rumors were unproven, but believed.
The tenants Plaza West watch the classified section of the newspaper carefully, and there was, in their concern for the future, a moment of reprieve when little ads advertising apartments for rent at Triton Towers appeared -- and a certain satisfaction.
"They're not selling so well," said the ladies on the veranda. Despite heavy sales to foreigners there are still more than 200 units left.
Charles Schnier, the developer at Triton Towers, had a heart attack shortly after taking over the building. He was laid up for two months. He wonders whether the heart attack was precipitated in part by the tension and the turmoil of the tenants.
"It is unjustified for them to take the attitude that this is the end of the world for them. It isn't.
"Again, I feel I can understand their situation. But shouldn't young people have the right to come in and enjoy the ocean too? Must Miami Beach be strictly for elderly people? People who can afford to live on the beach should have the right to live there. I feel sorry for the elderly who can't afford to live there. But there are places where they can afford to live; the sun is the same three miles inland.
"Also, their anger stood in the way of logic. Ultimately it is cheaper to buy than to pay rent because of the tax ramifications and the investment value of owning property. They should have bought rather than disrupt their way of life."
But their way of life had been disrupted before they even moved. The lobby was painted in bright colors and the benches where the residents used to gather and kibbitz were removed. This was to give prospective buyers a more youthful sense of the building. There is now a sign in the lobby: "The million-dollar view is on the house."
"This is the price you must pay to live in America," Charles Schnier said. "It's a free country. A person who owns a piece of property has the right to sell it. A person who can afford to buy it has the right to buy it.
"I disrupted their way of life. If I didn't do it, somebody else would."
Harvey Goodman, the former landlord at Plaza West who sold the building to Daon Corp.:
"When I sold the building, I was wearing my businessman's hat. After I had made the final commitment to Daon, and I guess you could say I had a better idea of how this affected people's lives, I put on my human being hat. I had lived among these people for almost nine years. You get to know them as individuals.
"Some of them are pains in the neck. But I don't like to see them depressed and angry. I have seen them in the lobby all day, waiting for the florist on Mother's Day. Some of them have been badly abused by their children. I have seen a 35- or 40-year-old daughter come into the building and take her mother's ring and beat her up.
"I have seen the swollen eyes on the old woman, claiming she's been beaten. And I think to myself, probably, in my old age, I won't be as helpless as they are. I think, "There, but for the grace of God . . . .'"
Next: "You should be thinking of getting out now."