By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Guadix has only three inspectors for his entire district (which includes Edgewater and Wynwood), and they check for violations ranging from zoning to sanitation. Only one works full-time for Edgewater. He knows how important community involvement is, and like Garcia, he believes residents must be encouraged to take pride in their neighborhood. “When people live in an area that looks terrible, they feel terrible,” he says.
But in Edgewater, owner-occupied buildings account for only about twenty percent of the properties, and it's hard, he also knows, to instill pride and a sense of responsibility for the community when most of the landlords don't live in the area. “I can't force them to feel another way,” he says of the neighborhood's absentee owners. “In Edgewater we have some resistance, but mostly people understand that [legally maintaining their property is] for their own benefit.”
Among the problems plaguing the neighborhood, he cites rehab facilities clustered too closely together in violation of zoning ordinances and overcrowded units. “[A landlord] may buy a duplex and subdivide it for three or four families,” he explains. Unfortunately if the landlord complies with building codes and provides enough parking spaces, he can maintain as many apartments on a property as he wants. Why? Guadix says it's because of the zoning regulations that permit maximum-density housing.
And Lieutenant Garcia acknowledges that landlords have a financial incentive not to invest in their properties. “If I'm a slumlord living off low rents [and then the neighborhood improves], I can't buy low,” he notes.
Raymond Navarro, one of Edgewater's landlords, is no fan of the NET office. He owns 27 properties in Edgewater and Wynwood, buildings that usually are easy to identify. Most have the same color scheme: beige walls with dark-green trim. Navarro says he saw the colors -- which his paint supplier calls Navajo White and Mown Green -- on a firehouse in South Miami-Dade and thought they looked stylish.
There are two other ways to identify a Navarro building. Because the landlord doesn't provide window shades, the tenants supply their own, often bed sheets or other makeshift coverings. The second clue: There's usually a pay phone out front. Navarro has ordered the installation of a number of the phones (he says he does it for the benefit of his tenants who can't afford their own phones); though there's nothing illegal about that, Garcia and others in the neighborhood are concerned that pay phones are magnets for drug dealers. Some homeowners living next to his buildings say the pay phones are the least of the problem. They claim his buildings are regularly rented by prostitutes and drug dealers.
Navarro, who first purchased property in the neighborhood three years ago, dismisses the allegations and says they can be traced to jealous competitors who want to buy his buildings. When he acquires a property, he insists, he makes it better. “I buy them with problems and bring them into compliance,” he says. “I don't condone criminal elements, and I keep the buildings clean.” He also is eager to defend his tenants, who he says are unfairly stigmatized because they're poor. “Ninety percent are working class with legitimate jobs,” he claims. Besides, he adds, “This area is undesirable. [It] will never be South Beach. It's got about another twenty percent growth, and then it will plateau.”
Navarro has a partner in three of his properties: Ofcr. Carlos Mendez, a patrolman with the City of Miami Police Department, who is attached to the local NET office. They own one building in Edgewater and two in Wynwood. Mendez worked as a neighborhood resource officer in Edgewater until this past February, when Garcia transferred him back to patrol duty. Mendez claims he's been unfairly singled out by Garcia, in part because of his association with Navarro. “There is intense scrutiny of everything we do,” he asserts. But in terms of upkeep, he maintains their housing isn't out of character with the surrounding neighborhood. And though he acknowledges there have been arrests on some of Navarro's properties, he notes that since he and his partner bought their building off Biscayne Boulevard in March, only one arrest has been made at the site -- and he made it. “This is a high-crime, low-income area,” he says. “And unfortunately our tenants, no matter how much we control them, reflect the area.”
Navarro and Mendez say they do the best they can with old buildings. Although Navarro's buildings have been cited -- “a lot,” according to Guadix -- for “unsafe structure,” illegal trash disposal, permit violations, and abandoned vehicles left near the property, he says he takes care of the issues promptly. He complains that he never receives warnings about problems in his buildings.
“Police and code compliance have failed to communicate with landlords,” he maintains, adding that he's had other paperwork problems with the NET office, too. He wishes the office would just go away. “They have no professional knowledge of what is going on,” he says.
The Edgewater Economic Development Corporation is yet another agency claiming a stake in the neighborhood's future. The nonprofit was founded in 1992 by a group that includes assistant Belen Jesuit Preparatory School principal Armando Rodriguez and architect Juan Crespi, the same men who created Concerned Citizens of Edgewater. Until last year Rodriguez served as president. Politicians told the men that if they wanted to make a difference in the neighborhood, they should concentrate on commercial revitalization.