The Battle of Stonybrook 2018

RIVIERA BEACH, FL, October 24, 2018 — The Palm Beach Post reports:

“Two people are facing charges of inciting a riot at the Stonybrook Apartments in Riviera Beach on Oct. 18 as law enforcement was attempting to make arrests, according to a police report.  The situation became so dangerous for Riviera Beach police officers and Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputies that they were forced to ‘grab all arrestees and get out of there as quickly as possible for safety reasons,’ according to a PBSO report.  Robert Graham, 26, of West Palm Beach and Collisha Ward, 35, of Riviera Beach are each facing a charge of either inciting or encouraging a riot.” …

Just another day in the life in the virtual prison known as Stonybrook Apartments in Palm Beach County’s Riviera Beach.

This “near-riot” comes a few weeks after a September 5 Riviera Beach City Council meeting, at which the Mayor publicly identified a man in the audience as a private investigator hired by Millennia Housing, the managing company for Global Ministries Foundation (GMF), to dig up dirt against him.  At that same session, two tenant leaders were removed for being “disruptive.”  The Council voted 4-1 to approve the sale of Stonybrook to Millennia It was Millennia Housing’s management practices themselves which had turned Stonybrook into the hellhole it was, beset by vermin, lack of electricity, black mold running rampant, collapsing ceilings, collapsing lungs, and a security squad which tries to keep residents trapped in their own units.  Having run the place into the ground, Millennia was looking to scoop it up on the cheap.  They were ironically given that opportunity because the FBI was investigating GMF for all sorts of criminal activities and was therefore forced to sell.

The package approved by the Council included Millennia’s site plan for Stonybrook, a $13 million renovation with splendid drawings showing off a modernist design that resembled what can only be described as a cultish suburban commune (curiously, the depictions only featured faceless white people).  It was a package deal which required Millennia to pay $380,000 for existing code enforcement violations.  But $90,000 had been knocked off of what Millennia had to cough up.

Stonybrook tenants were especially outraged at the “discount.”  Addressing the Council, one tenant stated:

“Millennium should pay the exact amount that is owed for the liens.  I don’t think our citizens are getting discounts on their liens on their property.  This establishment has millions of dollars, and people are still living in disgraceful conditions.  Not one dime should be taken off the table.  They’ve gotten everything they’ve asked for.  You have voted and granted this.  This company can pay their fair share and they should pay every dime that is assessed. … We’ll see how this vote comes out.”

Others argued:

“I suggest that you take the fines and the fees and create an entity so that the citizens have an independent voice away from Millennia.  Money should be earmarked to give agency to residents of Stonybrook. … And get the “blank” out of our city.  You’ve already given them everything they’ve asked for.  The Council will pay for this.

With the deal approved, Millennia gets to secure financing from their investors:  Boston Capital; PNC Financial Services Group Inc.; and Ohio Capital Corporation for Housing.  One might ask why they are so eager to take over such a badly failing property.  Since GMF is a non-profit, their financial records are available to the public.  Those records show that they have been pulling in over $2 million a year on Stonybrook’s rent alone.  Each unit is guaranteed by HUD at the fair market value and no matter what the resident pays, the rest is subsidized by the government.

Millennia Capital advertises to potential investors on their website that “there is a desperate need for affordable housing in this country and unfortunately (they mean ‘fortunately’) the demand will always be greater than the supply.”  However the economy is doing, poor people will always stay poor, making it one of the safest investment options out there.  So finance capital does what it does best and uses its economic black magic to leverage and speculate on hypothetical abstractions of value to create wealth that may or may not even exist.  If the ethics of that disturb you, you might feel better knowing that reputable public figures like Sean Hannity and Jared Kushner see nothing unethical about their own investments in the low-income housing market.

A guided tour of Hell.

Stonybrook Apartments is a 216-unit multi-family housing project in the 68% Black city of Riviera Beach, in Florida’s Palm Beach County, of which Gods & Radicals writes, “The only sin in Palm Beach County is being poor.”

The complex, like so many low-income areas throughout the country, stands off of Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. in what increasingly appears less as an unintentional irony and more of a warning that hope belongs in the past, buried there forever by a bullet.  Built in 1973, its 12,214 square feet are quarantined on all sides by a 10-foot-tall concrete wall, with apartment buildings comprising roughly half the area.  Located just a 10-minute drive from Trump’s winter White House, Mar-A-Lago, it illustrates the wealth and living standards gap in this country far better than any graph or chart could ever hope.  Originally purchased for $2.9 million in 1975, it changed hands in 2003 for $5.1 million, and was then grabbed up by GMF STONYBROOK LLC in 2012 for a cool $12.2 million.  It takes about 5 minutes of being there to realize that none of those millions ever trickled their way down to the physical buildings or their tenants.

As you enter the property, the first discordant note is the landscaping — resembling less of a landscape than the skeleton of one.  Small patches of crabgrass decorate the apartment’s yards of dead grey dirt.  Recently added pine needles — so dry that you dare not look at them too long lest they spontaneously catch fire — line the buildings to cover the smell of mold and sewage.  The senses cross and short-circuit in trying to process it all.  One is left with the intuition that something’s not quite right here.  If you’re here on behalf of the Palm Beach Tenants Union (which had been founded by radical members of Democratic Socialists of America and joined by the Palm Beach County Green Party), you’ll soon notice — half concealed by the sharp concrete edge of a building — a security guard in a tactical vest and belt that holds both mace and a loaded Glock.  He stares at you with an expressionless face and pose that immediately call to mind Michael Meyers.

The threat of violence hangs over everything.  The site Gods & Radicals, which described Stonybrook as “Crooked as a water moccasin’s spine and as rotten as a buzzard’s lunch,” related what had happened when residents inside their unit tried to talk to the press.  Property Manager Ms. Lee (known unaffectionately as “The Warden”) called the police:

“The journalists were told they were trespassing and were forced out.  It wasn’t long before Palm Beach police started circling the neighborhood.  It was eerily similar to the Klan riding around black villages, or cowboys about to unload on an indigenous settlement. They never talked to anybody, never got out of the car, just seemed to make it clear the County had a way about things. Go back inside or risk violence. Any further and we might come back after those cameras go away.”

Your unease grows as it dawns on you that the squirrels here are unnaturally manic.  In the dirt at your feet is a plastic spoon.  You realize that the land isn’t bare.  Planted in the ground are innumerable 1” x 1” clear plastic baggies.  A little girl no older than six runs by and quickly disappears into a unit.  As the green door slams behind her, you notice an infernal orange tag that reads “DANGER:  This Building Is Deemed Unsafe for Human Occupancy.”  There’s more text but you’re too far away to read it.  It’s been 5 minutes and you want to leave.  The people that live here wish they could too.

Everyone here is sick — all the time.  Nebulizers are recommended for use by patients once a week or so, yet the children here at Stonybrook have to use one several times daily.  Multiple families share one nebulizer as a means of survival.  If you don’t live here and aren’t accustomed to breathing black mold spores, then you can’t enter some units for more than a minute without having to rush back outside to gulp and gasp for less toxic air.  You stumble outside only to turn and see a mother and her child still inside.  You see the pained realization creeping up the mother’s face that her worst fears are valid — that it is as terrible as she suspected – as heartbreaking as it is horrifying — even if she had gotten accustomed to such air.  The residents make frequent maintenance work orders, and are handed bleach and a wash rag.  Doesn’t work.  The walls and ceilings are covered with damp spots like boils waiting to blister open and release the mycotoxin colonies thriving within, spreading through the buildings and the bodies of the people who live here and are dying here.

Enter the Union.

The Palm Beach Tenants Union canvassed the Stonybrook Apartments on April 15, 2018.  Their first official meeting with tenants was held on April 30 at a community center just down the street.  Some 40 tenants showed up and told their stories.  The overall goal of the meeting was to educate tenants on their rights under federal HUD regulations, and to offer them support.  The common sentiment was “This place [Stonybrook] feels like a prison.”

One tenant described it:

“You get fines for standing outside your apartment. The management says it ‘discourages criminal activity.’”  What? … He shakes his head. “These people can’t breathe because of the mold in their apartments and you’re not allowed on your porch. I mean is it a prison? You can only come out of your cell when you have permission?  Welcome mats aren’t even allowed.”

Retaliation soon followed.  Right after the meeting, we learned from tenants that Ms. Lee had followed tenants over to the community center and took note of who attended.  Informants told her what was said there.  The very next month there were mass evictions, approximately 50-60 of them, mostly by informal harassment and threats of legal evictions.  Tenants were put in the position of having to weigh the risk of staying and ending up with an eviction on their record, or taking their chances outside Stonybrook’s 10 feet- tall concrete walls.  The spark that was struck in that first meeting was quickly extinguished.

It speaks to the conditions in the buildings and the tyrannical atmosphere imposed by Ms. Lee that almost all of them decided to risk it elsewhere.  Meanwhile, Ms. Lee also informed the local non-profits that they were no longer allowed on the property.

Crystal Lewis has lived at Stonybrook for eight years, and in that time, she has watched conditions devolve from intolerable to downright deadly.  Crystal had already been organizing her fellow tenants on her own for six months, when the Palm Beach Tenants Union met her in May of 2018.  The Palm Beach Tenants Union immediately made it our mission to help.

Crystal encouraged tenants to compile documentation of all their interactions with management and to keep copies of all frivolous fines they received.  In retaliation, she had two cars vandalized under the watch of a property management that conspicuously knew about every illegal act or tenant infraction of non-compliance when it came time to evict someone — yet was unable to provide any help to Crystal even with four CCTV cameras in the vicinity.

Crystal did not back down.  In mid-June, Crystal and the PBTU sponsored a Juneteenth BBQ and invited representatives from Millennia to come and listen.  Millennia sent “Jeff,” their Public Relations man.  In tow was Cephus, Millennia’s paid “Resident Advocate,” who proved much more crucial to accomplishing Millennia’s goals further down the road.  The meeting went on for hours as tenants voiced hundreds of their concerns and presented the Millennia coterie with a petition signed by over 50 residents requesting the immediate removal of Ms. Lee.  The petition listed an array of reasonable demands as well as a reasonable timetable for Millennia to respond.  That week another resident, Edna House, stepped forward as an organizer and the Stonybrook Residents Council was officially formed.

Millennia immediately went into full union-busting mode.  They played residents against each other, exploiting the usual interpersonal conflicts that arise in a community under stress.  Tenant organizers were quickly slandered with rumors about being either paid-agents of dubious origin or opportunists with vaguely articulated motivations seeking to capitalize on the community’s pain.

At the same time, Millennia put on an amiable and concerned façade, expressing an enthusiastic willingness to work with all official channels and partners to make every resident’s life markedly better.  “Of course,” they intimated, “the only thing stopping things from getting better was these agitators stirring up unnecessary trouble.”  This redirected tenant energies into conflict with each other — between those ready to fight against Millennia and those hoping for a pleasant quick resolution.

Section-8 nightmare.

The threat of eviction is deadly.  There are two basic kinds of Section-8 voucher programs.  People are most familiar with tenant-based vouchers.  With those, individuals receive assistance directly and are able to live anywhere that accepts Section-8.

Less known are project-based vouchers, which apply to Stonybrook.  With project-based vouchers, the property itself receives the section-8 benefit and it is extended to an individual only on the basis that they live there.  If you move or are evicted, you are no longer eligible.

But in reality, these benefits are virtually unattainable.  According to the Palm Beach County Housing Authority’s website, the waiting list for the first kind of voucher closed in October of 2011, and the average waiting time to be confirmed for the benefit was 31 months.

The only open waiting list for a project-based voucher is at the South Bay Villas, an hour and four minutes away from Stonybrook, where 36.7% of the population is below the poverty line.  The City of Riviera Beach Housing Authority website currently has no way to even apply for housing assistance.  Nor do they list any opportunities unless you’re a business.  Due to these systemic limitations, the families in Stonybrook are kept like prisoners and hostages.

Crystal Lewis (l.) and Edna House.

Crystal, Edna, PBTU and others fought back against Millennia’s attacks.  July was a whirlwind of activity, beginning with a BBQ on the 4th where the residents declared their independence from any parties seeking to make a profit out of their conditions.  The following day they organized a nationwide call-in campaign to Millennia that was promoted by activist news websites and coordinated through various social media platforms.  #LiberateStonybrook began trending and local news began getting interested.  The PBTU also found a non-profit lawyer to take the case and he immediately began taking steps toward a class lawsuit.

Code and Fire marshals from the city showed up on the 10th and condemned nearly 50 units, but the city failed to find any resources for relocating tenants.  The city would not do anything for them.  At this same time Millennia went into cleanup mode.  They sent out lots of men with bleach and wash rags.  They declared publicly that all reports of toxic mold were false, and that their own building expert only found dust.  They lied.  Professional lab tests showed that not only were the buildings and people infected with black mold, but asbestos was all over the place.  As news of the fight spread, people from all over began asking:  “How is this possible?”  “Why don’t they just leave?”  “Where is HUD?”  “Who is to blame?”  It became clear to all of us on the ground, each time we were confronted by questions like these, that most people were largely unaware that the system was actively working against them.

“The City Council will pay for this.”

The battle of Stonybrook is not over.  The problems faced by organizers and activists are multi-faceted and layered, leaving plenty of room for different targets to attack and tactics to be employed.  But because the issue is hydra-headed; intricately tied up between government agencies, private corporations, and an industrial non-profit complex, we cannot afford to lose sight that what is happening at Stonybrook is happening to people all across the country and the world.  The largeness of the problem does not necessarily mean that we have to get lost struggling in a convoluted web sprung across every sector of this system that exists solely to redirect resources from the masses to a select few rich elite.

But a certain theme came through from those testifying at that September 5 Riviera Beach City Council meeting:

“The City Council will pay for this.”

— Danny Greene
Member, Palm Beach Tenants Union

 

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