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Las Vegas-area landlord vs. tenant battle hits boiling point

Landlord Frank Miao
Buildings owned by Frank Miao on 10th and 11th Streets
Buildings owned by Frank Miao on 10th and 11th Streets
Buildings owned by Frank Miao on 10th and 11th Streets
Posted at 7:36 AM, Aug 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-26 12:38:16-04

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Rising rent and a severe shortage of affordable housing are the hallmarks of our looming eviction crisis.

It's a situation that highlights the plight of some of the valley's most vulnerable citizens... families living in poverty who feel forgotten, and in one case, are literally falling through the cracks.

"My apartment, my wife, everything! You have made an unsafe living condition!" Charles Moorehead yelled at his landlord Frank Miao.

As Miao tries to respond, Moorehead's roommate intervenes, saying, "You need to step away before you get in trouble, okay?"

That scene is a snapshot illustrating how tensions couldn’t get any higher for the families living in the run-down apartments Miao owns on 10th and 11th streets.

"This building--no one should be in there," Miao explained to a 13 Investigates producer who was there during the argument. "That's the reason we turned off the water."

PART 1:

Landlord vs. tenant battle hits boiling point

Turning off the water is one tactic Miao has used to get rid of Moorehead, "Like I'm an animal," Charles said.

He lives in the 11th St. building with his disabled, bedridden wife.

"She has a rare brain disease that causes her joints to lock up. She's lost the use of her hands. I have to roll her, feed her, change her..."

When 13 Investigates intervened, the Las Vegas Valley Water District agreed that Frank couldn't deprive his tenants of water and turned it back on.

But that's just one in a series of disputes that have escalated to a boiling point between multiple tenants and their slumlord is what Moorehead's roommate, Mitchell Bowers, says.

"He doesn't care about anybody here. The only thing he cares about is if he gets paid. I had been living with Mr. Moorehead for a couple of months and we'd been badgering Frank to take care of several problems. One of them was a very soft spot on the floor in front of my bedroom door. It's disgusting! We're not pigs! We're not animals! I've seen animals with better living conditions than this," Bowers said.

"He's a slumlord!" added Suzanne Campbell, another tenant who lives in Miao's building on 10th Street. "He really is a slumlord. He doesn't take care of things."

Tenants we spoke to in five different units say Frank demands they pay rent in cash and doesn't give receipts.

PART 2:

Las Vegas-area landlord vs. tenant battle hits boiling point

"During the pandemic, we took what we could get," said Charles, who moved into his apartment in November 2020. "I didn't realize the apartment had as many problems as it did."

Charles took in roommate Mitchell Bowers to help pay the $950-a-month rent for the two-bedroom apartment.

"And my electric bill just in this last 30 days was $396. If we take this plywood off," he said, gesturing to his front window, "There's plywood on the other side and it's just an open window. This is plexiglass--not sealed. My door, if I don't lock my top deadbolt, my door can just go back open."

Those are just some of the issues they've been dealing with since moving into Miao's building.

"It's really bad," Moorehead said. "The first month of us living here, my roommate fell through the floor into the neighbor's apartment downstairs, almost landing on two of their younger children. The floor in this bedroom where I had my wife was sinking. We had to move her bed into the living room."

Showing us the area of the floor in question, Bowers explained, "This was the empty space that I had fallen through. It was missing a board for the better part of two months because we were waiting on Frank to bring them."

"Those repairs have to be made in good faith so that the tenant can have a livable unit to reside in," said Heidi Foreman-Toney, a tenants rights counselor with Nevada Legal Services. "There are code enforcement, other extreme situations where a property has gotten so far in disrepair that the government has to step in and sort of compel that landlord."

Charles did call the City of Las Vegas Code Enforcement to force a fix.

When they came, he recorded it on his cell phone.

Code Enforcement brought a licensed plumber who took one look at Charles' water heater and said, "It's leaking. It's really gross."

The floor in Charles's apartment failed due to a water leak they didn't know they had from the 20-year-old water heater.

"And he needs a new water heater below, too, with permits," Code Enforcement Officer Lori Hageman told the plumber.

"We don't put a water heater in without pulling a permit," the plumber responded.

"All right, well, I didn't say you did, but I know the gentleman you're dealing with does," Hageman says, nodding toward Frank Miao.

Miao is no stranger to code enforcement officers. From 2017 through May of this year, multiple units in six apartment buildings he owns have been repeatedly cited by the city.

Violations include unsafe building, general dilapidation and lack of sanitation, sewage leaks, hazardous plumbing, electrical and floors, plexiglass windows, inadequate exit, pest infestation and lack of smoke alarms... Just to name a few.

Charles' unit was red-tagged because of the damage caused by the water heater.

"We're not kicking you out," Officer Hageman says on Charles' cell phone video. "We're notifying the owner he has to fix it now."

"But what if he doesn't?!" Charles demands. "He's been sending all the contractors away!"

"These guys are here. They're going to start the work now," responds Anthony Krieg, another city code enforcement officer on the scene. "As soon as that (water heater) is put in, the leaks stop, then that (red tag deeming the unit uninhabitable) comes off."

"In the most egregious situations where they refuse to make the repairs, they refuse to make the home safe for humans to inhabit, there are penalties in place," says Foreman-Toney of Nevada Legal Services.

Frank says he's been fined more than $30,000 for code violations.

"All this drama with you guys, it's legitimate. I get it. But that's not the city's role here," Hageman says on Charles' cell phone video. "The city's role is to get the building repaired.

"But the city's role is also to make the landlord--slumlords like him--accountable so they don't keep renting these places like this!" responds an emotional Charles.

Turning to Miao, Hageman said, "You created this today. By not doing your job as a landlord, you created all this today. You should be ashamed of yourself, the way you treat these people."

Code Enforcement Officer Krieg tells Miao, "You get your contractor out here and they'll make the water damage repairs as well, right?"

"We try to do that, yes, yes," Frank responds.

"So why are you arguing with me?" asks Krieg.

Miao argues that the family who lives in the unit below Charles--the one with the water-damaged ceiling Mitch Bowers fell through--has to move out in order for him to make repairs.

"But you can't just tell them to leave!" an exasperated Hageman says. "You need to re-house them in a Budget Suites or something two-bedroom, close by."

Several days later, 13 Investigates watched as the family packed their belongings into trash bags, stuffed it all into an old SUV, and drove away for good, leaving Charles's as the only inhabited unit in an otherwise boarded-up building.

After declining several requests for an on-camera interview, Miao finally agreed to meet us at another building he owns on Maryland Parkway.

"Most of these people, they come to my property. They want me to give them help so they can have places to stay. So, I let them stay, but end up with big trouble because they destroy my property. And they cause the property to be uninhabitable," said Miao. "I want them to leave, and they don't leave!"

Heidi Foreman-Toney says options are few for low-income families like those who live in Frank Miao's buildings.

"They may have come to the home even knowing that it was in disrepair, but they had to just get a roof over their heads for themselves and for their family members. And it is really tragic."

The Campbell family is a perfect example of just that.

Six-year-old Aiden Campbell totes around his prized possessions --a few toy cars and trucks in a battered lunchbox--and already knows what he wants to do when he grows up.

"I want to make a lot of money to help mommy get a new house."

A house like the one they used to live in, where he and his brother had their own room.

Now, Aiden and his family of seven live in a tiny one-bedroom apartment on 10th St. in barely habitable conditions.

"This is my sink that collapsed while my children were brushing their teeth," says Mom Suzanne Campbell, showing us the bathroom wall where the sink was mounted and explaining that it had rotted from moisture and mold.

Like Charles and all her other neighbors in Miao's 10th and 11th Street buildings, her unit is a hotbed of code violations.

"Our doors are not properly sealed underneath. Windows are caulked with putty and they’re not weatherproof. It's hot in my house. Really hot. My electric bill is over $400 every month for a one-bedroom. There are black particles blowing out of my vents. The neighbor moved out because every time we showered it flooded him."

The unit is also infested with bugs and rats.

"It was only the hall closet where the rats were, but once we blocked that closet off so they couldn't get through, they started eating through the wall and coming into other rooms."

To top it off, the bathroom window is sealed with tape.

"There's this gap here," Suzanne points out. "I had scorpions coming in. And so, this was his idea of fixing the window--leaving it open to where it doesn't close at all."

What you might find unlivable, Suzanne and her neighbors see as the only thing they can afford.

The code violations in her unit for April and May include sanitation issues, improper windows, no smoke alarms, doing repairs without permits, insect infestation, hazardous electrical, sewer leak and more.

"It upsets me that he won't just fix the issues because I'm looking for places to go, but it's like $12-1500 just for a two-bedroom and that would put us struggling more than we need to be. I would need to figure out where to come up with that extra money."

Suzanne pays $700 a month to live in the apartment she rents from Frank Miao.

"I'm stuck! I want out, but with my electric bill over $400, I'm stuck buying fans and making make-shift air conditioners with little coolers and fans and ice just to keep my family cool! I do want out but it's hard. I haven't been able to find somewhere for us to go."

"The goal is just to keep the people safe and at that point, a lot of times they do just need to move out and it's a hardship, especially for low-income individuals," said Foreman-Toney. "They may not have a lot of resources, they may not be able to afford a moving truck and a deposit, an application fee, admin fees, security deposits..."

A situation made worse during the pandemic with skyrocketing rents and a severe affordable housing shortage.

Just last week, Gov. Sisolak agreed to dedicate more federal funds from the American Rescue Plan to address Nevada's housing challenges. But it won't come soon enough for Frank Miao's tenants.

"What happens when he goes and files an eviction in the court when the mandate's up?" Suzanne wonders fearfully. "Where do I take my disabled mother, my disabled brother who I'm responsible for and my three children?"

The day after we did that interview with Suzanne, Frank did file an eviction notice, alleging Suzanne hadn't paid rent since March even though Frank admits he had recently told her to fix things on her own, and front the money for it, too.

"I said go-ahead to fix things up because some things I cannot do. I have to do it by a licensed contractor. I tell her to just hire the licensed contractor and deduct from the rent. And if you don't pay rent and you feel it's uninhabitable, move out. Move out!"

"Code Enforcement said you can't just tell them to move out," Darcy Spears reminded him. "You're the landlord. You've got to fix stuff. You've got to give people a decent way to live."

"I don't have money to do this," said Miao, despite owning property in multiple states including at least seven here in Las Vegas, a home in Arcadia, CA, and others in both California and back East he says he sold over the last several years.

"How many properties do you currently own?" asked Spears.

"I don't need to disclose to you. Before we are doing the rental business. I'm retired based on all my income," he answered.

Miao blames his Las Vegas tenants for damaging their own homes.

He claims he can't afford fixes because multiple tenants in his various properties haven't been paying rent.

But he can't prove that and neither can they.

All the tenants we spoke to say Miao will only take cash and won't give rental receipts.

He says that's not true.

"Where are all of the rental receipts that you're giving these tenants?" asked Spears. "Do you have copies of rental receipts and leases for all of these people?"

He says he did, but they disappeared due to a burglary at his Summerlin-area house in December.

"They break in, take all my documents--leasing documents, rental receipts, checks..."

13 Investigates obtained the police report from that break-in.

The only mention of stolen paperwork is tax documents.

Thieves also reportedly stole tools, electronics, a 9-mm handgun and a 12-gauge shotgun, neither of which he had serial numbers for at the time police were taking the report.

The burglary happened while Miao himself was in jail, arrested on an outstanding burglary warrant for breaking into a tenant's apartment and taking her belongings.

Despite video evidence, that case was recently dismissed.

"Do you believe you're the victim in all of this?" Spears asked.

"Of course!" Miao answered.

The lack of rental receipts kept him from evicting Charles Moorehead and his disabled wife.

Our 13 Investigates camera was in court when Hearing Master David Brown expressed frustration with both landlord and tenant.

"I'm going to find that there are material facts in dispute such that this is not proper for summary eviction," Brown said. "This is a tough case. Sometimes I get the impression I'm not getting everything truthful from you, sir. I don't like the fact that you don't have receipts and you still contend you pay rent all in cash. It's just about the worst possible way of taking care of rent because anybody can lie about that."

The consequences of all this for Charles, Suzanne and another neighbor are set to play out in court in September.

Their cases are scheduled for hearings right before the eviction moratorium expires.

All the tenants we spoke to have pending applications for rental assistance through CHAP, the CARES Housing Assistance Program, but that money is meant for people who lost income due to the pandemic.

People like Charles and Suzanne, who collect disability, may not qualify.

And it's people like them who are getting priced out in the current rental market and falling through the cracks.

But there are other pools of money and programs to help prevent that, like the Coordinate Entry Assessment sites set up through Southern Nevada’s Help Hope Home program, which is designed to connect people who are homeless or near homeless to resources.

"This has proven to be an effective way to assess people for multiple programs and match them to appropriate housing in the community as it becomes available," said County Spokeswoman Stacy Welling.

OTHER RESOURCES:

Click here to apply for the City of Las Vegas Rental Assistance for Tenants (RAFT) Program.

Click here for more information on RAFT, eviction help, and community partner programs.

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