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Activists wear white but see red over ‘toxic’ apartments

South Florida Sun Sentinel - 11/9/2019

Crystal Lewis is wearing all white. White pants, a white jacket and underneath, a white T-shirt with a black fist.

She is standing with about a dozen neighbors in matching T-shirts outside the Riviera Beach City Hall Wednesday night before the city council meeting. Another 10 or 12 of their neighbors in matching shirts are already inside. They’re planning to hijack the meeting.

Lewis is an activist, a resident of the Stonybrook Apartment complex in Riviera Beach and the president of the Palm Beach County Tenants Union. She and co-founder Adam Wasserman organize tenants around issues they say make the apartments in Stonybrook toxic and uninhabitable. The goal of Wednesday night’s action is to confront the council on what they say is neglect of their community.

A lawsuit filed by residents last year and upgraded to a class action suit in April accuses the city and the complex’s former owner, Global Ministries Foundation, and current owner, Millennia Companies, of negligence over conditions in the apartments, including toxic mold and asbestos.

A number of residents spoke during the public comment section of the meeting, including Lewis.

“We got a lot of kids with mold and asbestos in their blood,” Lewis said. “If y’all want to talk to my people, come to Stonybrook.”

City officials capped public comment time in the meeting to 15 minutes and after Lewis spoke, most of the union members and their supporters, numbering around 20, stormed out.

“After the last meeting, I asked them to come see my people and how they’re living,” Lewis told the South Florida Sun Sentinel after the meeting. She discussed her alternate site plan and what she would like to see Stonybrook look like.

“These houses eliminate the staircase in Stonybrook because everyone hangs out on the staircase,” Lewis said. “You would now have your own balcony and your own space and everyone will be in their own place, so you don’t have to worry about anyone hanging out in front of their door and everyone will have their privacy.”

Thomas Williams is a graphic artist and floor plan designer in the tenants union.

He told the Sun Sentinel after Wednesday’s meeting that Stonybrook is designed like a prison -- offering little privacy and, until the tenants union demanded its removal, surrounded by a barbed-wire chain-link fence. Williams designed an alternate site plan that would give residents more space and privacy, showing a 3D rendering to the Sun Sentinel.

“My whole purpose of the design is to make it [better] for everybody,” he said. He wants Stonybrook knocked down and rebuilt on the same site to assure things like asbestos and mold don’t affect residents anymore.

“All of [the conditions associated with asbestos and mold] that’s on those commercials that they’re exposing right now is in these units. So in order to have a safe environment, everything must go.”

After the meeting ended, council members had police escorts as they walked to their cars past the tenants.

Councilwoman Julia Botel, whose district includes Singer Island and who tenants called out during public comments, told the Sun Sentinel in an email Thursday that she is, “not at liberty to discuss this topic,” because “there are sensitive matters that may involve litigation.”

Councilwoman Shirley D. Lanier, whose district includes Stonybrook, did not respond to emailed request for comment on Thursday.

A spokesman for Millenia Company, the current owner of Stonybrook, responded to the tenants union’s comments in a statement emailed to the Sun Sentinel on Friday.

“After almost three years of working with local, state and federal agencies, The Millennia Companies is set to begin a much-needed approximately $17 million major renovation project at Stonybrook Apartments,” the statement read.

A combination of bonds issued by the state of Florida, tax credits from the Florida Housing Finance Corporation, and assistance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will “preserve the affordability” of the 216 apartment units for the next 30 years, according to Millenia. The company said that residents will be temporarily relocated onsite while renovations are done.

“The rehabilitation will include new kitchens, bathrooms, flooring, painting, finishes, HVAC systems, new roofs and roof repairs, updated exteriors, among other upgrades,” the company said. “Each building will be fully outfitted with a sprinkler fire suppression system and there will be significant improvements to infrastructure and landscaping.”

To read a full list of Millenia’s plans for Stonybrook, click here.

Wasserman, the co-founder of the tenants union, said a number of residents are withholding rent until their demands are met.

Lewis said she wants Stonybrook to look and be operated less like a prison and more like a community:

“I think we need more privacy, we need our own space and, as a married woman with five kids, I think I should be able to make my own decisions when I want to go inside the house or not.”

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