Two cities look to tackle prostitution and drug dealing along Calle Ocho

By Lance Dixon

The days of hourly room rentals at a string of hotels and motels along Southwest Eighth Street could be coming to an end — if two cities team up to enforce changes.

Coral Gables and the City of Miami are working on a partnership that will enforce a new law in the Gables that prohibits hourly rentals. The Coral Gables City Commission hopes that ending the rentals will be a step toward changing the character of the stretch of Calle Ocho that runs from LeJeune Road to the Palmetto Expressway and preventing prostitution and drug dealing there and in nearby neighborhoods.

“I look forward to hopefully implementing this and cleaning up an area that for such a long time has been a blight not only for the city of Miami but for the city of Coral Gables,” Commissioner Vince Lago said. “For some reason there’s been a blind eye turned to it for a long time.”

But Coral Gables, which for a long time didn’t crack down on the hourly room rentals, needs cooperation from the City of Miami. Only one of the motels is within Coral Gables city limits. The motels on the other side of the street are in Miami.

That section of the busy street has establishments like Wishes Hotel, Jamaica Motel, Stardust Motel, Miami Executive Hotel and Tamiami Motel that offer heart-shaped jacuzzis, mirrored rooms, adult movies and emphasize privacy and discretion. Many of these “no tell motels” have operated for decades.

Many of the hotels feature neon signs with hearts and are surrounded by tall fences or extensive shrubbery. Nearly all of them have enclosed parking and, except for the occasional missing roof tile or dim light bulb, appear to be in good condition from the exterior. 

“Prostitutes walk around at all hours, and men slowly cruise up and down near the hotels. I often pick different routes to drive home when bringing guests over to avoid this area,” a resident said in an email to Lago.

Lago and City Attorney Craig Leen recently met with Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez and Miami staff members to discuss the item, which would create a mutual-aid agreement, a joint enforcement zone and special task force between the cities’ police departments. 

“I think that oftentimes this kind of activity can be seasonal, and when there’s an uptick in it everyone starts paying attention,” Suarez said. “It all depends on where we see things happening.”

Lago said that he went on four undercover stings with Miami Police on the northern side of Calle Ocho and saw pimps and prostitutes making their way in and around the motels. Police arrested prostitutes and clients, including some who had weapons and drugs.

“There’s no way that can be accepted a stone’s throw away from us,” Lago said.

The Gables approved an ordinance in December to prohibit hourly rentals at city hotels and motels. The ordinance provides for fines for any business owner who accepts payment for an hourly rental. The city plans to levy fines of up to $5,000 — after a warning and if the business has two violations within a year — and up to $15,000 if the business is found to be facilitating prostitution or sex trafficking. The owner’s certificate of use could also be revoked under the new law.

The existing zoning code already specifically defines hotels as “designed and utilized for daily, weekly or monthly occupancy.”

Former Commissioner Wayne “Chip” Withers, who served from 1991-2011, said the concerns on the street are not new but in his time on the dais the city focused more on reaching out to Miami Police to fight the crime than on regulating the businesses.

“If you saw solicitation going on on the street that was more of the concern,” Withers said. “I have mixed feelings about government jumping into regulating things like that.”

Neighbors said they were relieved to see this initial step in solving a problem that has caused some longtime residents to consider leaving the North Gables. Ariel Fernandez, a North Gables resident who has been critical of the city’s public safety efforts, said he’s encouraged by the new law and thinks it was long overdue.

“We’ve definitely seen the activity in the neighborhood,” Fernandez said. “Whenever you drive down Eighth Street coming home, you see the activity that’s going on in that general area.”

City leaders believe other crime in the North Gables area could be related to illicit activity on Calle Ocho.

“Some of the petty thefts and the break-ins that we have in the city of Coral Gables are [by] individuals who are looking for that cash flow,” Lago said.

Rahul Kothari, who has lived in the North Gables for about five years, said that hourly rentals seem to encourage illicit behavior.

“I’m not against people running their business the way they want, but not at the expense of our safety,” Kothari said.

Miami dealt with a similar stretch of motels along Biscayne Boulevard in the Upper Eastside that were notorious in the 1980s and 1990s for housing prostitution and drug dealing. The area overcame some of those problems and had a resurgence in the past decade with new restaurants and stores. And renovated hotels like the Vagabond are now tourist destinations.

Fernandez hopes the same kind of change can also happen along Calle Ocho.

“If we can attract new anchor stores in those strip malls we may be able to change that perspective as well,” Fernandez said. “We have seen some business owners take the initiative to improve things.”

Coral Gables has already seen results at Wishes, the one hotel in the city’s boundaries along Eighth Street. The business stopped hourly rentals after receiving a cease and desist letter from the city. But Coral Gables doesn’t have jurisdiction on the other side of the street.

Suarez said the municipal boundaries along the road have made it difficult for governments and law enforcement as the businesses fall in the cities of Coral Gables, Miami and West Miami and in unincorporated Miami-Dade and the prostitutes are aware that the different jurisdictions have varied regulations.

“We don’t want some people to exploit the jurisdictional boundaries in getting away with something that’s bad for our neighborhoods,” Suarez said. “We want to make sure there’s some flexibility for our officers and their officers.” The goal is for the law enforcement agencies to work together in preventing the activity along the street.

Suarez said he plans to discuss the agreement with Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes and has staff looking at what laws Miami already has on the books to address these businesses before considering a similar restriction on rentals. He expects Coral Gables to approve the new item with the Miami commission likely voting on it in March.

“We’re looking to see to what extent we can implement this if we don’t already have laws that address it,” Suarez said.

Leen said he anticipates the Gables commission will vote on the agreement at its Feb. 28 meeting.

“I think it will be a model of how two cities can work together,” Leen said. “I think it will help a lot of people.”