Postcards from the Edgewater

Nothing prepared Joel and Michelle Rodriguez for their first experience as landlords in Edgewater, the tattered waterfront area just north of downtown. Back in November 1996, the young couple, who were in their late twenties and planning to wed the following spring, came across an eight-unit, 1940s-era Art Deco-style apartment building halfway down a block that ended as a small spit of land jutting into Biscayne Bay.

The building was in sorry shape, as was the surrounding neighborhood. A trash-strewn vacant lot across the way served as a homeless camp. Discarded furniture lay out on the sidewalks. The nearby houses were boarded up and showed signs of vandalism. Gangs of kids held rule over several of the worst blocks, and residents would peer from their windows before leaving their homes.

Yet 80 years ago, Edgewater was one of Miami's exclusive residential areas, an often dazzling enclave of stately houses and mansions. Designed and originally named after the chic Miramar district of Havana, Miami's Miramar was home to the cream of the local merchant and professional classes as the city expanded northward. But over seven decades, politics, resettlement, and issues of race and power brought decay to paradise. And by the early 1980s, the neighborhood lost the last of its fading luster and deteriorated into another tenement slum.

Still, the Rodriguezes fell in love with the building. And they say they could feel the bygone charm of the old community, where within some 40 square blocks, more than 100 early twentieth-century houses and apartment buildings stand in various states of disrepair.

“Someday,” Michelle told her fiancé, “we'll own this building.”

Joel, a real estate agent since he was nineteen years old, negotiated the seller's price down from $225,000 to $157,000. But after that promising start, the couple's problems began. Completion of the sale dragged on for months, stalled while the owner resolved confusion over an improper foreclosure in the property's recent past. When the closing date was set at last, it conflicted with their wedding and had to be moved back again.

By the end of March 1997, the day before they were finally scheduled to sign papers, Joel and Michelle did a last walk-through of the apartments. Four months had passed since they'd been inside, and they realized the small building was in much worse shape than they thought. Daylight poked through holes in the walls. Heaps of loose trash littered the courtyard. Everywhere they looked something begged for repair. Even the address on the building, written in crayon near the front door, looked as though it would wash away in the rain. Worst of all was the discovery that only two of the eight units remained occupied; the couple was counting on a full quota of tenants to help offset their mortgage payments.

The newlyweds went to the closing, ready to forfeit a $10,000 deposit and walk away from the deal. It was only at the last minute that they decided to take a chance on the building and proceed with the purchase. The next day they revisited their property to see what could be done. Eight men lived together in a studio apartment where Joel would later find plastic bags containing cocaine residue. And when the Rodriguezes asked their only other tenant to pay her rent, she produced a six-month-old receipt as proof of payment.

To prevent an outburst from his exasperated wife, Joel sent her to a nearby hardware store. While he tried to reason with the tenant, Michelle searched the aisles for locks to secure the empty apartments before vagrants took up residence. There in the shop, she burst into tears. What had they gotten themselves into?

At that moment a young woman approached to ask if she was all right. Between sobs Michelle managed to tell the story of the tenant who wouldn't pay her rent, the men she suspected were drug addicts, and the awful condition of the building they'd just gone into debt to buy.

“It's nothing, don't worry,” Diane Justo told her. She and her husband, a real estate agent like Joel, had bought their first building in Edgewater a few years before and had been through a similar experience.

In the end Joel and Michelle decided that rather than initiate eviction proceedings, they would offer their delinquent tenant a “security deposit refund” and help her move. (The Justos had taken a similar tack with some of their more difficult tenants.) Over the next eight months, they cleaned up the building and eventually filled the apartments with reliable renters.

Along the way they became good friends with Diane Justo and her husband. Alex Justo had lived just outside the neighborhood, after his family arrived from Cuba in 1967. He'd grown up, moved elsewhere, and was selling real estate in 1995 when he rediscovered his old stomping grounds; he learned Edgewater apartment buildings were selling for less than $10,000 per unit.