The Knight of Blight
Steve Satterwhite

The Knight of Blight

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Six years would elapse before Martinez was again seriously pressed to take responsibility for his apartment buildings.

Events following several drug-related arrests between July and November 1992 at one of Martinez's buildings illustrate the developer's political influence.

After inspectors cited Martinez and company for creating a public nuisance at 1320 NW 61st St., the landlord appeared before the city commission. On January 14, 1993, commissioners made clear their hesitancy to confront the millionaire property owner. "If [Martinez] decides to walk away from [Miami Limited and Miami Limited II], you've got thirteen vacant buildings that are going to be vandalized, and we're in trouble.... How much money would we owe the federal government if he walked out?" said then-city commissioner, now convicted felon Miller Dawkins. In what seemed a rehearsed answer, then-Assistant City Manager Herbert Bailey, a Dawkins protégé, responded: "Approximately $4,000,000 ... we'd lose it all on second mortgages."

A week later the city's Nuisance Abatement Board retreated on the charges after Martinez argued that he had made efforts to work with local law enforcement to curb drug activity at his properties. Rather than fine him, NAB members asked Martinez to make a "contribution" toward the board's investigation. As a result Martinez pleaded no contest to the charges and paid $250, thus avoiding a full evidentiary hearing on the efforts he had made to curb drug activity at his properties.

Interestingly Martinez said he could not pay the $250,000 per year required for increased security. "I don't have that kind of money," Martinez told the board. Four years later, on New Year's Day 1997, a bullet fired from a Martinez property terminated the career of Miami Police Ofcr. Ricky Taylor. At 12:30 a.m. Taylor was shot in the head while sitting in a patrol car in front of 1320 NW 61st St. He survived but was disabled by the wound.

On December 18, 1998, Taylor sued Martinez, alleging the building owner contributed to the criminal atmosphere that led to the shooting. According to Taylor's lawyer Jerome Wolfson, between July 1994 and September 1998, Miami's notorious John Doe gang was operating out of the place where Taylor was shot. "We are saying that the building was unsafe.... Martinez should have known of the dangers which emanated from that property," maintains Wolfson, who adds that Martinez failed to ensure his property was not a center of drug activity. The case has not yet been decided.

On a late spring afternoon in 1998, Teresa James stood on the second-floor balcony of her tiny one-bedroom apartment on NW 61st Street. Her six-year-old daughter milled about near her, sticking close and occasionally reaching out with one hand to touch or embrace her mother's thighs. James held her other child, a one-year-old baby girl, in her arms. The calm in the air only heightened the anxiety, which grew nightly. Drug deals and loitering were on the upswing. Her building, like the one next to it, part of Martinez's Miami Limited II housing complex, was under siege. Rats scurried through the walls at night, and cockroaches scattered when she turned on the lights.

From her perch James listened to the familiar chatter of female voices below. For some time she had found comfort in talking with other tenants about the problems they shared: busted water pipes, yellow drinking water, bullet-pocked walls, leaking roofs, sagging walls, broken locks, stoves that didn't work, crime. She recognized another voice, that of a white, middle-age man, and she immediately became worried. A cop, she thought, Got to keep my distance. In Germ City it was dangerous to be seen talking to the police; there could be serious repercussions, revenge exacted by local drug dealers. James took a step back from the balcony, pretending to look distracted by the northern skyline, glancing now and then at the interloper. He was asking a lot of questions. He even dresses like a cop, she thought.

What James didn't realize at the time was that the man would help deliver her and her children from danger. Thomas K. Petersen, a Miami-Dade juvenile court judge, had learned of problems at the complex in March 1998, while hearing a delinquency case. Cops had chased a young man, who was a suspect in a drug deal, into the building next to James's, also part of Miami Limited II. They entered without producing a search warrant. Because the building was public housing, police alleged a search warrant was unnecessary. "Why would the city and the county support public housing in a place where it was virtually impossible to raise children?" Petersen wondered.

With the help of a friend, public defender Roger Gibbs, the judge opened his own informal investigation. After he talked with Teresa James, he met with many of the women who lived in the complex. "There were rats running around; it was apparent everything was terrible, horrible," Petersen says today. He documented and photographed his findings and on April 8, 1998, sent them to Rene Rodriguez, director of the Miami-Dade Housing Agency. "Not only was the overall environment of the street unsafe and hazardous, as it has been for the last twenty years, but ... the conditions in the apartment buildings were equally deplorable," wrote Petersen.

Petersen followed up his missive to Rodriguez by helping to organize a series of tenant meetings. At the first such gathering, 70 women crammed into a small room at Charles Drew Elementary School. They compared horror stories and tried to fashion a plan of action. They held several more encounters at Jordan Grove Missionary Baptist Church on Twelfth Avenue and NW 59th Street. Their solution: Move out.

Petersen and the women invited housing officials, city and county commissioners, and even Martinez to the meetings. Martinez never showed but after the fifth one, when Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Carey-Schuler began attending, Petersen was hopeful. Although the women had complained for years, only the clout of a juvie judge and a county commissioner caused city and county housing agencies to get serious. Soon there were results. The county moved swiftly to shut down Martinez and to get the women Section 8 certificates; within a year the Miami Dade Housing Agency cancelled its contract with Miami Limited. The city would follow suit in October 1999. In March of this year the last of the Miami Limited II tenants finally were relocated.

Shortly before Thanksgiving 1999 Martinez's luck seemed to take another turn for the worse: One of his vacant Liberty City properties had sprung a nasty leak. A backed-up pipe caused raw sewage to flood the asphalt courtyard of 1370 NW 61 St. When Miami Police Ofcr. Wade Orner responded to the scene, he was outraged. Children walked through a pool of germ-infested waste twenty yards wide and several car lengths long.

After several inspections that week, during which the sewage spill was not remedied, Orner set out to arrest Martinez for creating a sanitary nuisance. On November 30 at about 10:30 a.m., the developer was led away from his Coral Gables office by a small platoon of Miami cops. Martinez found himself, for some brief and uncomfortable moments, behind bars.

But even when Martinez is unlucky he seems to have a way of getting off easy. After posting a $500 bond, the developer was home by midafternoon. And authorities dropped the sanitary-nuisance charge after Martinez remedied the sewage leak on December 1. "The point was to obtain compliance and that was done," says State Attorney's Office spokesman Don Ungurait. "The main thing in a case like this is to fix the problem."

In South Miami-Dade, just west of U.S. 1 near the Cutler Ridge Mall, there are four recently constructed $86,000 homes. Eighteen more of the three-bedroom, two-bath, single-story structures are slated to be built by the end of the year. Called Caribbean Villas, this project is part of Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas's Infill Housing Initiative, which is designed to give low-income families a chance to purchase houses. Developers buy available lots, private lenders provide first mortgages, and the Miami-Dade Housing Agency offers second mortgages at low-interest rates. (The county has set aside one million dollars for its part.) MDHA also helps find potential buyers. The projects must go through a complicated approval system that involves Rodriguez, County Manager Merrett Stierheim, and the county commission.

Who stands to make money off the sale of the Cutler Ridge homes? Art Martinez, who is building the structures in partnership with Community Reinvestment Agency, Inc., a nonprofit corporation directed by developer José Miranda. Commissioners approved the proposal for the homes a mere two months before the MDHA terminated the Miami Limited contract.

If the properties sell as expected, Martinez could pocket as much as $300,000.

You can buy a Caribbean Villa for as little as $500 down, with monthly payments as low as $525. Sounds like a pretty good deal for persons of humble means looking to get a leg up. But remember those Liberty City projects Martinez "renovated" in the mid and late 1980s? In as little as four years, those buildings began falling apart. Should these structures begin deteriorating, the burden of repairs is going to fall squarely on the low-income buyers.


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