The Knight of Blight

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

Martinez, the object of the women's wrath, was conspicuously absent from last June's confrontation at Dinner Key. Given his dismal business history, his presence could have been more disruptive than the women's. Since 1984, when he launched his lucrative career as a taxpayer-subsidized developer of low-income housing, he has failed to make timely payments on million-dollar loans from the City of Miami. He also has allowed hundreds of his low-income housing units to sink into such a state of disrepair that inspectors have declared them uninhabitable. An eight-building development, Miami Limited, deteriorated so badly that it recently was torn down by housing officials, while Miami Limited II, the five-building complex that was the subject of the early summer commission meeting, has since been deserted and boarded shut.

In 1989, when Martinez finished assembling his kingdom of properties, he probably held more federally subsidized apartments than any landlord in the nation. At the peak of his reign, Martinez owned 1552 rental units in Miami-Dade. But his brazen record of neglect finally began catching up with him two years ago, when slow-moving city and county housing agencies enforced the rules. Both housing agencies have since punished Martinez by canceling government-funded rental contracts valued at a total of $1.4 million per year.

Despite this abysmal record, Martinez was allowed to break ground this spring on a new low-income housing development in South Miami-Dade called Caribbean Villas. The project, which will eventually comprise 22 single-family homes, is overseen by the Miami-Dade Housing Agency. The agency will not only help find buyers for Martinez's properties, but will also make second mortgages available to buyers. The MDHA is the very county organization that in November 1998 cancelled a housing contract worth between $600,000 and $690,000 annually to Martinez because of his negligence.

Authorities closed down these Liberty City buildings, just as they did all Martinez's properties in the neighborhood
Steve Satterwhite
Authorities closed down these Liberty City buildings, just as they did all Martinez's properties in the neighborhood
After juvenile court Judge Tom Petersen took these photos in April 1998, anti-Martinez sentiment picked up
After juvenile court Judge Tom Petersen took these photos in April 1998, anti-Martinez sentiment picked up

Many of the Liberty City housing projects that marked Martinez's first foray into the world of federally subsidized housing have been torn down. The eight buildings that made up Miami Limited are in various states of demolition. Some structures have been completely cleared; all that remains are lots strewn with debris. Other buildings look as if bombs were dropped on them from above, annihilating the roofs. Piles of shattered concrete blocks flank the ravaged structures.

Miami Limited II, owned by a partnership overseen by director Martinez, is slated to be torn down to make room for less-concentrated, federally financed, affordable housing. All of the buildings included in both developments -- except for one structure in Overtown -- are located in an area bounded by NW Twelfth and Seventeenth avenues, and NW 58th Terrace and 62nd Street. Although it is one of South Florida's most troubled and crime-infested locales, hopeful city planners call it King Heights. Those who have made these mean streets their home call it what it is: Germ City. Together the thirteen buildings (before being shut down) represented about one-tenth of Martinez's empire of government-funded housing. These days Martinez still owns and operates 1295 rental units in 42 buildings that sprawl across Miami-Dade. The HUD program he has made his specialty is called Moderate Rehabilitation. It was conceived during the Nixon administration and was phased out in 1990.

Commonly called "mod-rehab," the program was designed to encourage private developers to renovate dilapidated buildings in blighted neighborhoods. It offered investors an irresistible deal: Rehabilitate the property and the federal government would guarantee generous rent subsidies for fifteen years. Long term, those subsidies would guarantee a profit. Unlike federal programs that allow prospective tenants to use their vouchers and certificates anywhere, mod-rehab subsidies are tied to specific properties. If a tenant moves out, he or she automatically loses the rental assistance.

The federal money is distributed by local housing authorities, which also are responsible for ensuring the landlord properly maintains his buildings. In addition the agencies provide assistance in finding and processing qualified tenants. Five such government organizations exist in the county; they will receive $118,754,880 from federal HUD this year. Despite having lost both his Liberty City projects, Martinez alone will take in more than six million dollars of that money this year, while his tenants will pay about two million dollars out of their own pockets.

Martinez, who declined comment for this story, got his start in the aftermath of the 1980 Liberty City riots, when he seemed a hopeful ray of light to bureaucrats seeking to reinvent the inner city. The bloodshed that followed the murder of motorcyclist Arthur McDuffie led to increased anti-slum enforcement efforts by the State Attorney's Office. Dozens of landlords experienced their first day in court, some were thrown in jail, and others were run out of town. Enter Martinez. With an eight-year career as a general contractor behind him, the Cuban-American businessman was looking to broaden his horizons. Not only did he have a clean slate as a landlord, he also was willing to risk investing in blighted and predominantly black neighborhoods. True, there was plenty of incentive, but there also was risk. Local bankers initially balked at Martinez's early efforts to finance the Miami Limited project. Then in October 1983, the county's Housing Finance Authority approved the sale of $4.5 million in bonds for it. Martinez was on his way.

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