The Knight of Blight

Miami developer Aristides Martinez once seemed an inner-city savior. Today he goes by another name: Slumlord.

On June 22, 1999, 150 women, all residents of a Liberty City housing project, turned up at a Miami City Commission meeting to beg for deliverance. After living for years in some of the most poorly maintained buildings ever to curse the inner-city landscape, these tenants wanted out. But the federal subsidies to their rent were tied to the crumbling, vermin-infested, crime-ridden apartment buildings in which they lived. Since the early Nineties they had complained to city and county housing officials about the deplorable conditions they were forced to endure. Little was done to help them. Now, following the fortuitous intervention of a concerned juvenile-court judge who had helped generate public awareness of their plight and who encouraged them to organize, they were a unified presence before the commission.

With community activist Lee Variety guiding them, some of the women stood in the jammed lobby, while others filled the rear seats of the commission chambers. Having apparently arrived unannounced, they proved a disruption to the normal proceedings. Commissioner J.L. Plummer had a minor fit. "It was wrong to invite these people here without going through the proper procedures!" he said, wagging his finger at Variety. The activist, bald pate shining, brooding eyes looking imploringly toward the commission dais, stepped up to the podium. He raised his slender arm and held up a city housing official's business card as if it were a white flag. "We did not come here haphazardly or in a disorganized way," he explained. "We came here after speaking with people from your staff last night. I have this card that was given to me to prove it."

Following a noon recess, a reluctant Plummer, at the urging of Commissioner Art Teele, agreed to let some representatives of the group address the commission. Dressed in her Sunday best, Cassandra Jackson was the first to speak. Like many of the women who'd made the journey from Liberty City to city hall, she was a single mother who hoped to protect her children from the decrepit conditions of the building in which she lived and the influence of crime in the neighborhood.

Steve Satterwhite
After Teresa James (top) told city commissioners she hated living in her Martinez-owned apartment so much she didn't care for repairs, she just wanted out, Gwendolyn Warren (bottom), director of the city's Office of Community Development, said she would implement a barrage of inspections on the landlord's properties
Steve Satterwhite
After Teresa James (top) told city commissioners she hated living in her Martinez-owned apartment so much she didn't care for repairs, she just wanted out, Gwendolyn Warren (bottom), director of the city's Office of Community Development, said she would implement a barrage of inspections on the landlord's properties

"My baby was the baby that was bitten by the rat," she began, describing a recent incident documented by housing officials. In her white dress, hair parted to the side, Jackson was the very model of propriety. As Variety and other organizers milled around behind her, planning the best way to use the little time they had to present their case, she looked now and again at a notebook where she had written a prepared speech. But as she spoke, her frustration got the best of her and she veered off her prepared script, rage rising. "I have holes in my ceiling. I have holes in my floor from the rats," she boomed. "I have asked [the owners] to fix it. They didn't. But as soon as my baby was bitten, they jumped right on it. Lizards, snakes, scorpions, everything coming out. [The landlord] didn't come. But when [my daughter] got bit, they fixed it. They came and patched it."

After composing herself Jackson yielded the podium to another single mother who recounted a similar story. Cynteria Frederick, who lived two blocks from Jackson, had also dressed up for the meeting. A robust woman, she looked disarmingly innocent in her flower-pattern violet dress, but her eyebrows were furrowed, and she spoke seriously.

Frederick also began her speech in a restrained fashion, but by the time she got around to the tale of a recent murder in the courtyard of her apartment building, she too lost her cool. Her hands, which she held primly behind her back, loosed themselves, and she pumped her left hand up and down for emphasis as she concluded, "We're to the place now that we don't want to hear about 'They're going to repair it' or 'They're going to fix it.' Because that building is gone. We need to get out now!"

The 150 women who turned up at the commission meeting were tenants of a five-building, city-run development owned by landlord Aristides Martinez. They were familiar with the success of other tenants -- who lived in a nearby complex also owned by Martinez -- in getting relocated to better apartments. Now they wanted to press for the same treatment. The women were hoping to get the city's housing agency to issue them government-backed rent certificates. Unlike the rent aid they were receiving, the certificates could be presented to landlords on the open market to cover up to 70 percent of their rent. The financial assistance that made it possible for them to make their current rent payments was tied to the crumbling Martinez buildings in which they lived. If they moved out, they would lose the aid, so they were essentially trapped.

"What we want now," declared Teresa James, the last of the women to speak at that meeting, "we don't want no more inspections. We don't want no more of y'all saying, 'Y'all going to do this and do that.' What we want is answers and we want them now!"

The Liberty City women definitely made an impression at city hall. Commissioner Teele offered a resolution that would give the city emergency powers to have the tenants relocated. Gwendolyn Warren, director of the city's Office of Community Development, which oversaw the housing project in question, said she would initiate a campaign of inspections that might ultimately lead to condemnation of the buildings.

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