The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Surfside condo collapse triggered evacuations. Hundreds are still waiting to go home.

Amanda Caso plays with her 2-year-old son Alam outside a Hampton Inn near the Miami International Airport on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. Caso and her son are among the hundreds of residents that were forced from their condominium in Miami after it was deemed unsafe since the Champlain Towers South building collapse in Surfside, Fla., that killed 98 residents. (Scott McIntyre/for The Washington Post)

MIAMI — At a boutique hotel north of Miami, two women in their seventies sit in the lobby’s lush sofas, talking over coffee as young couples drink cocktails beneath neon lights nearby. But Alcira Guarnizo and her friend are not guests. They are residents.

“I just want to go back to my house,” Guarnizo laments in Spanish, sweetening her coffee with two packets of sugar and taking a sip that doesn’t come close to the taste of the cafecitos she usually makes at home. “I can’t do this anymore.”

Coffee in a recyclable cup brings back the bitter taste of forced displacement.

For some 20 years, Guarnizo lived a peaceful life in North Miami Beach’s Crestview Towers — a 156-unit condominium occupied by both young families and elderly residents, many with roots stretched throughout Latin America. Then the Champlain Towers South in Surfside collapsed in June, marking one of the worst building failures in U.S. history and sparking a citywide review of buildings 40 years and older — including her humble abode.

The building where Guarnizo lived — and once worked at when she emigrated from Colombia — was the first deemed “structurally and electrically unsafe,” prompting an immediate evacuation.

Nearly two months later, the complex’s over 300 residents remain displaced. Several have found refuge with relatives and friends. A few have found new places to rent. Some like Guarnizo remain stuck at the Aloft Hotel in Aventura. None have returned to the place they called home — a reality that has left many feeling as if their “lives were put on hold,” she said.

Yet the sentiment is not unique to the residents of Crestview Towers. Since the Surfside disaster, two other buildings have been evacuated in Miami — some late at night while residents were getting ready to sleep. Though the county has helped find emergency lodging, where evacuees will live longer term is in limbo — and more people could find themselves in the same situation in the months ahead.

Miami-Dade officials ordered an audit of all buildings five stories or higher that had not yet undergone a mandatory recertification once reaching 40 years in age in the aftermath of the collapse. Many of the region’s condos are decades old, constructed before stricter building codes were enacted after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

“If we have to do it, we’ll do it again,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said in an interview with The Washington Post. “We can’t have another Surfside.”

Maria Iliana Monteagudo woke up in her sixth floor apartment in the Champlain Towers South building to the sight of her ceiling cracking. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor, Hadley Green/The Washington Post)

For Ron Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, the recent spate of condo evacuations represents “the new face of homelessness" — people displaced from their homes because of circumstances out of their control. They are facing homelessness at a time when there is an affordable housing crisis, a pandemic increasing housing insecurity and already-stretched resources have dwindled to a near-breaking point.

“We have never faced the housing challenges that we are facing right now,” said Book, who has presided for 26 years over the Homeless Trust, an umbrella organization that advises the county on policy. “I can tell you, unquestionably, that we have never had anything that mirrors what we’ve got right now, and the problem is we don’t know when it stops.”

The organization is now aiding residents from two buildings, Crestview Towers and 5050 NW Seventh St. — a 138-unit complex located some 18 miles away that was evacuated Aug. 9. A total of 109 households, Book said, have relocated to hotel rooms paid by the Homeless Trust and Camillus House, a local agency that provides humanitarian services to Miami’s homeless population.

“At least we have a roof over our heads,” said Zoe Reynoso, who has owned a unit on the Crestview Towers’ third floor for 39 years. “But do you know what it’s like to have worked all of your life, paid your taxes, paid your mortgage, paid all of the building’s maintenance fees and assessments and then suddenly find yourself without a house? It’s heartbreaking.”

For Reynoso, a 60-year-old man who was hoping to retire in two years, weeks of sleeping in a foreign bed at the Aloft Hotel without the mementos and comforts of his home have dragged on. Yet the hardest part is the “overwhelming emotion” of feeling both helpless and forgotten.

“We were in all over the news for weeks, and now it’s like we don’t exist,” he said. "It’s been a month and we’re not sure what’s going to happen to us. It’s like we’re pawns and, honestly, the rich just don’t care about the poor and working.”

The frustration is compounded by a lack of clarity over the building’s situation. Last month officials found that Crestview Towers had failed to get both its 40-year and 50-year recertification, North Miami Beach City Manager Arthur Sorey III said. The condominium board then sent a Jan. 11, 2021, inspection report noting that structural elements such as beams, columns, walls and balcony slabs were “showing distress,” according to Roberto Barrerio of B&A Engineering Services, who issued the document. A further inspection by the Miami-Dade County Fire Department found 39 electrical violations, including a non-working fire alarm system and emergency generator.

A week after being evacuated, however, the condominium board submitted two new inspections that contradicted such reports. Issued by two engineers hired by the board, the reports concluded the 49-year-old building was safe for occupancy while some concrete and electrical repairs were performed.

Still, officials were not convinced, Sorey said. Last week a fire broke out on a second-floor unit while Crestview Towers was vacant.

“It just goes back to what we were saying [about] why we shut it down,” the city manager said. “Alarms, sprinklers, all of that stuff is missing. So that’s the main issue. It’s not us being in Crestview’s way, it’s Crestview basically being in their own way.”

The condominium board did not respond to several requests for comment from The Post. Mariel Tollinchi, an attorney representing the condo association, said the group is still not convinced that the report deeming the building unsafe is accurate. The recommended repairs, she said, would cost an “unreasonably high" $10 million.

“There’s just no way a homeowner is going to cough up $100,000 to make repairs to their home while they’re not even living in their home and having to incur the expenses of living outside,” she told The Washington Post in early July.

Some residents have since moved to file a lawsuit against the board, but Reynoso said he is not convinced such attempts will be fruitful.

“At the end of the day who’s going to end up paying for the repairs and the court? Us, the owners who can’t just move to another place," he said.

While uncertainty affects residents equally, the challenges they face in the aftermath of an evacuation vary. Owners grapple with a situation without an end in sight — many had finished paying their mortgage and worry about the increasing costs repairs could encompass. Meanwhile renters face a housing market where demand surpasses supply, increasingly pushing prices upward.

A study published in July by the nonprofit Miami Homes For All found that 50 percent of all of the city’s households were “cost burdened” — defined by the U.S. Department of of Housing and Urban Development as those spending over 30 percent of its income on housing costs. Rental costs surpassed what their incomes are able to afford — a crisis that disproportionately affects Black and Latino citizens, according to the study.

Alexander Miranda, 49, moved to Crestview with his wife and 7-year-old daughter in March. He was working at a concrete plant when he received a frantic call from his wife telling him they were being kicked out of the building.

Memories of families packing into elevators like “a can of sardines” while authorities loudly knocked on doors are etched into his mind — his daughter now refuses to use elevators and has nightmares about that day, he said. Even worse, Miranda remembers the four days he spent living inside his car.

“Every time I tell this story it makes me cry,” he said in Spanish, his voice breaking. “Imagine being parked underneath a bridge spending the night, not knowing if your family will ever have a roof over your heads.”

After those four days, Camillus House reached out to Miranda and placed him in a hotel. A month later, the agency helped him find the apartment where he is living now.

“That’s how I know God exists," he said. "It was honestly a miracle.”

For other renters, the process was not nearly as easy. Harold Dauphin, 46, said by the time he looked at eight different apartments and sent his offer, the places were already off the market. Last week he made a final attempt with a twist in his strategy.

“I moved forward and sent my offer before I even visited the unit,” Dauphin said. “Only in Miami, I swear. But thank God I did because the owner told me she had gotten 28 other applications after I sent the contract. No wonder why it’s so difficult to find a place.”

The father of a 7-year-old boy, Dauphin said they are now preparing to move into their new home. But he is still scarred by his son’s questions after they were forced to evacuate.

“Are we going to sleep on the streets tonight?" the child asked.

“Homelessness can happen to anyone at any moment,” Dauphin said. “And look, there’s a misconception about it because there are those circumstances like what happened to us here. None of us imagined it, we’re hardworking people. Really, it was not meant for us be in the homeless category under normal conditions.”

Levine Cava said the recent evacuations — which residents have characterized as “chaotic” and “disastrous” — have brought lessons for the future. The mayor said a working group will convene on Aug. 30 to discuss steps to improve safety. Advance notices for buildings at risk of being evacuated are among the ideas up for consideration.

“A hotel or shelter is not a permanent solution,” Levine Cava said.

As Miami-Dade County grapples with how to prevent another Surfside disaster, Levine Cava and Book said they will be looking to the community for assistance. Investigators are still working to determine the exact cause of the collapse, which left 97 people dead. A recent investigation by The Post identified possible sequences of events where the collapse of the pool deck could have weakened key columns, triggering the wider disaster.

Many experts and officials anticipate that the search for answers will include dramatic reforms of how buildings in the state are evaluated.

“We really need all the help we can get,” Book said. “We’re at a point in which I’m robbing Peter to pay Paul, but if one thing’s for sure is that we’ll make sure nobody sleeps in the streets.”

As the days carry on, Guarnizo has lost hope for a swift return. She says a prayer every night asking God to keep her safe from Florida’s latest coronavirus surge and begging to sleep once again surrounded by her favorite feather pillows.

“The day we can go back I will throw a big party,” she said. “But honestly, I just want my own bed.”