MiamiHerald.com
Published: June 3, 2007
'House of Lies' a profound story
Today's report is likely the first of several on the city of Miami's housing troubles.

Among the more than a thousand e-mails and phone calls that flooded Miami Herald reporter Debbie Cenziper after her ''House of Lies'' series last year were a dozen tips with the same pointed message.

"They said, 'You need to look at the city,'" Cenziper said. "They were former city employees, other people, all saying we needed to see what was going on in the city of Miami."

So began more than five months of sorting through housing records, court liens, invoices, bankruptcy records, civil suits and foreclosures to uncover a profound story that is a kind of sequel to last year's series.

The report, beginning on today's front page, documents the stark failure on the part of a city housing agency meant to build affordable homes in the midst of some of the nation's highest housing costs and gravest needs.

Instead, the story finds, the housing agency gave away millions of dollars in loans that have gone unpaid for years, steered projects to well-connected applicants and paid hundreds of thousand of dollars to many would-be developers who never delivered the houses they promised.

Last year's "House of Lies" series had dramatic impact on the county agency, prodding prosecutors to file charges, forcing reforms and striking a chord with thousands of readers infuriated by the county's performance.

Today's story finds similar as well as some distinct problems within the city's agency. When you put the reports together, they show a pattern that raises startling questions in the midst of the state's housing crisis.

The debilitating blend of high prices, insurance costs and property taxes is clearly undermining the housing market to the point that people are being priced out of South Florida. Some are leaving. Others are forced to live in unacceptable conditions.

It's a backdrop that makes the shortcoming all the more vital to confront. And yet when Debbie Cenziper started asking for information of city housing officials, their reaction was to stonewall.

''We couldn't get the most basic questions answered,'' she said.

Debbie, later joined by reporters Larry Lebowitz and Oscar Corral, was determined to pursue the tips. She sat for weeks going over old minutes of the housing agency, assembling a list of every project launched since 2001.

Larry spent months researching court records, foreclosures and civil suits. Oscar, who used to cover the city, worked on sorting out what was happening with the agency. The three of them divided up the projects and worked on tracking down every one of them.

''It didn't take long for us to see there was a serious problem,'' said Larry.

They also went looking for those left waiting in vain for housing. Their stories are woven into today's pages in a way that reminds us of the human cost of what is happening. Families are losing homes they've saved toward for years. Children are living in conditions that should make us all ashamed.

A few months before she won the Pulitzer Prize this spring for last year's work, Debbie accepted a job with The Washington Post that will enable her to move back near her hometown. It's a deserved opportunity, the kind of position that usually calls for immediate departure.

But she decided she wouldn't leave until today's story was done, a commitment that took almost half a year to deliver. Debbie's house was sold and the moving van had come and gone while she stayed behind to finish the story, make last calls and complete a final check of the facts.

''She put her heart and soul into it,'' said Mike Sallah, the editor on both last year's series and today's piece. "She never stopped working. The more she found in her reporting, the more she wanted to see this story through to the end.''

Today's report by Debbie, Larry and Oscar is likely the first of several on the city's housing troubles. Larry and Oscar are already working on new developments that you can expect to see in the paper in coming months.

''This story is not over with this piece,'' said Oscar. "I think it's safe to say we still have a lot of work to do.''

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