The Knight of Blight

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

Although Martinez agreed to meet with New Times at his Coral Gables office for a 45-minute interview, the developer asked that nothing said at the meeting be published. (He didn't allow a reporter to take notes during the interview, so what follows are recollections recorded later.) Afterward he agreed to permit the use of biographical information gleaned from the meeting. Of medium height and build, his platinum and gray hair parted to one side, 59-year-old Martinez looks something like a less portly version of late Speaker of the House Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill. He wore boat shoes, a white button-down shirt, and brown corduroy pants.

In 1960 at age nineteen, he arrived in Miami from Cuba with his parents. The family, of humble means, took residence in Little Havana. His father worked in a factory, while his mother was a homemaker. Two years after his arrival in the United States, he met his future wife Margarita. Martinez went on to attend the University of Miami, where he studied mechanical engineering. He worked as a draftsman at an architectural firm in St. Petersburg until 1972, when, with his brother Gilberto and two others, he founded Marbilt, Inc., a limited partnership organized to do general contracting. Dissatisfaction and internal tensions within the firm led to its dissolution in 1984. Martinez then embarked on the Miami Limited project.

No bullet-pocked walls here, in Martinez's million-dollar Coral Gables home; just a pricey design as understated as the developer himself
Steve Satterwhite
No bullet-pocked walls here, in Martinez's million-dollar Coral Gables home; just a pricey design as understated as the developer himself
Retired judge Tom Petersen led the anti-Martinez charge
Steve Satterwhite
Retired judge Tom Petersen led the anti-Martinez charge

Since 1986 Martinez's headquarters have been located at 401 Miracle Mile, suite 404. Like the man the offices are somewhat understated. Upon entering, a modest reception area affords a view to a small room to the right, where his wife works as his secretary. Copies of Hispanic Today and Show-boats International are arrayed on a table in the waiting area. Past a door opening into the recesses of the Martinez sanctum, framed pictures of the developer's only extravagance -- prized cattle from his ranch in Ocala -- adorn the walls around his desk.

Today he lives in Cocoplum, a gated community of palatial homes not far from his office. Martinez's house, a slate-gray million-dollar affair, is on sleepy Monaco Street. To reach it one must first pass an armed Wackenhut guard. If it is past five o'clock and you do not have a resident pass, you are not allowed in unless a resident okays your entrance.

In the summer of 1986 Martinez was still trying to make his name. He had renovated six Miami Limited properties. And while crime continued to run rampant through King Heights, police had stepped up patrols in the area. At least on the surface, Martinez's Liberty City buildings seemed models for a better neighborhood.

But Martinez did not stop there. Between 1984 and 1990, when the mod-rehab program was phased out, he sealed rent-subsidy contracts for six more housing developments. Martinez's success in garnering so many mod-rehab contracts has its roots in the HUD shenanigans of the 1980s. Back then savvy developers were figuring out dubious ways to use the mod-rehab program. Martinez turned to powerful Washington lobbyists such as former Kentucky Gov. Louie Nunn to gain approval for HUD projects in South Florida. Martinez was one of several Miami businessmen who, with prominent lawyer Martin Fine and developer Jorge Perez, found a new way of doing business. They paid huge sums to lobbyists to shepherd through their proposals.

Martinez was able to nail down approval for three huge projects using this approach. According to Associated Press reports, by shelling out $750,000 in the 1980s to Washington lobbyists, Martinez gained approval for Arama Limited, South Florida I, and Little Havana Limited. Today these three developments account for about 700 rental units, or a little more than half of Martinez's holdings. In total rent payments, the developments yield more than four million dollars per year for him.

As the result of a HUD probe by an independent counsel begun in 1990 and concluded last year, seventeen Washington insiders, including housing officials and consultants, were convicted for steering contracts or committing perjury to cover their tracks. The investigation, prompted by a 1989 HUD inspector general's report of the government's Section 8 program, revealed that former U.S. Attorney General and Watergate felon John Mitchell had received $75,000 for lobbying on behalf of Martinez. Mitchell helped Martinez win approval for Arama Limited, a 279-unit project spread out over parts of Little Havana and Hialeah. For his influence in securing approval for the South Florida I project, Mitchell, who died in 1988, received $110,000. But the former Nixon stooge's take was only part of the $594,000 that Martinez paid Nunn to speed his proposals along. Federal prosecutors never came after Martinez, though his name appears often in federal records.

In 1988, just about the time Martinez secured a 1552-unit fiefdom of government-subsidized apartments, a restructuring of county government led to the end of the elite force of slum-busters made up of prosecutors and county officials. The heat was off none too soon for Martinez. Although taxpayers had shelled out more than ten million dollars per year for Martinez's properties, the landlord had lagged miserably behind on repairs.

Miami Limited began falling apart almost immediately. Miami Limited II took a little more time. In February 1992 reports of rat infestation, collapsing ceilings, raw sewage, and crime at Miami Limited helped trigger a U.S. HUD probe of mod-rehab developments nationwide. Then, under pressure from federal HUD, county inspectors found dozens of Martinez's apartments to be noncompliant. Between February and March 1992, officials discovered 950 violations in 74 units. Among the shortcomings were serious water leakage, sagging ceilings, and broken stoves. The county then moved to turn off the spigot of federal dollars for dozens of those apartments. Months later Martinez was featured in a New Times article, "Dade's Worst Landlords" (May 27, 1992). Martinez began to make repairs, but the combination of crime and poorly maintained structures would ultimately make life unbearable for the 200-plus families who lived in his Liberty City properties.

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