For years, entrepreneur Ortelio Marcelo had wanted to build affordable housing at his property on Northwest 18th Street in Miami’s Allapattah neighborhood.
He sought public financing, but the city of Miami’s Community & Economic Development Department denied his application. At the time the department was headed by Barbara Gómez, who was fired in 2007 after corruption allegations.
On Tuesday, city leaders joined Marcelo at a ribbon-cutting event for the six townhouse-style apartments for low-income residents he finally built in Allapattah with more than half a million dollars in public funds.
How did he get the money? With help from Gómez.
“I had asked Barbara for the money years ago, but she turned me down,” Marcelo said. “Now I hired her and look where we are.”
She helped him obtain $563,212 from the city to build Parkview Apartments II, which cost a total of $800,000. She has also sought an additional $120,000 from Miami-Dade County, which denied the application. Gómez said she is appealing.
Gómez said that she has found satisfaction helping real estate entrepreneurs like Marcelo to navigate the system she knows so well.
She started her consulting business in 2007, when she lost her job with the city after a Miami Herald investigation that detailed botched affordable-housing projects, loans that went unpaid for decades and cronyism. The newspaper also reported on how Gómez steered more than $1 million in city contracts to two companies that employed one of her ex-husbands soon after he had been released from federal prison for cocaine smuggling and jumping bond. She had also funded another nonprofit agency where her son worked.
On Tuesday, Gómez shared with El Nuevo Herald a 2008 determination from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to dismiss the case against her after finding insufficient evidence that Gómez willfully violated the agency’s conflict-of-interest policies.
“The case went all the way up to HUD in Washington and cleared me,” Gómez said. “I was found innocent.”
A spokeswoman from HUD did not respond to a request for information from El Nuevo Herald on Tuesday.
Although she started her consulting business in 2007, Gómez said she had focused on other things for a few years, such as teaching political science at Ana G. Méndez University System. Finally, in 2011, she devoted herself full-time to her new job of guiding developers and other businesses through government bureaucracy.
“People started calling me,” Gómez said. “I have received support from developers, both large and small, and from city and county officials. They welcomed me.”
In fact, there was a welcoming atmosphere during Tuesday’s press conference at Parkview Apartments II. Several city officials attended, including Mayor Tomás Regalado, City Commissioner Wifredo “Willy” Gort and Alfredo Durán, deputy director of Miami’s Community & Economic Development Department. At least half a dozen other employees attended: two spokespersons, two sound technicians, a cameraman, a city photographer, two employees from Gort’s office and a sergeant-of-arms who serves as Regalado’s chauffeur.
“I believe she was the victim of other people’s wrongdoing,” Regalado said. “I always supported her because she had compassion toward poor people. And she has to be given a second opportunity.”
So many people attended the press conference that the residents of this poor neighborhood stopped to ask what was going on. Two neighbors who live in another affordable-housing project nearby said the new construction was pretty but too expensive for the neighborhood.
Two of the apartments will be rented for $705 a month, and the remaining four for $921 to low-income families that earn 80 percent or less of the county’s median household income, or a maximum of $52,300 a year for a family of four.
Yet many families in Allapattah make much less per year and already pay a lower rent amount than the cost at Parkview Apartments II. Census data from 2010 show that families in the neighborhood pay an average rent of about $631 a month. The HUD criteria depend on the median income at the countywide level, not the neighborhood level.
“This rent is very high for the area, where everybody is poor,” said an elderly neighbor who declined to be identified for fear of losing his house. “This project does not resolve any of the housing problems. Here they favor the rich.”
Under the terms of city grants, Marcelo must maintain the rent at the “low income” levels established by HUD for 30 years.
During the press conference, Gort said he had heard from residents who feared displacement as rents in the area rise.
“There was a theory that we wanted to remove low-income people from the city of Miami,” Gort said. “This is the type of program that guarantees that this is not the idea . . . Those rents have to be maintained for 30 years.”
Gómez explained that the conditions of the buildings of Parkview Apartments II are better than those of other old buildings in the area. The apartments have two bedrooms, 1 ½ bathrooms, tile floors and new kitchen appliances.
Regalado acknowledged that the six apartments in Parkview are a drop in the bucked when compared to the vast need for affordable housing in the County.
But he considered the Parkview project a message to neighborhood residents that “Allapattah has not been left behind. There is new construction happening not only in Brickell but in Midtown and Wynwood.”