Miami-Dade County

Ex-husband’s financial woes create house of horrors for Miami congressional candidate

As she runs a competitive campaign for a Miami congressional seat, former broadcaster Maria Elvira Salazar is being chased by financial woes inherited from a dissolved marriage.

Now eight years past her divorce from home builder and designer Renzo Maietto, Salazar’s decision to purchase millions in Miami real estate with her then-husband ahead of the economic collapse in 2008 has left her with a mess. Her net worth is upside-down, and she’s personally on the hook for a bank note under foreclosure after her ex defaulted on a $2 million home loan.

Salazar says the problems are entirely out of her hands, both in their making and resolution: When the couple divorced in the summer of 2010, Maietto said in a settlement that he’d pay the mortgage on the now-distressed Radcliffe Manor property where the couple had hoped to live with their two children. Salazar also signed over the deed to the home to her estranged spouse.

“Mr. Maietto agreed in the divorce agreement to assume all liability for the property,” Salazar told the Miami Herald.

But legally, they’re still her problems. And accusations that Maietto committed homestead-exemption fraud during a period in which Salazar held the title could make those problems her campaign’s burden as well during a difficult race against former University of Miami president Donna Shalala.

Salazar’s headaches stem back to 1999, when she and Maietto married shortly after her divorce from her first husband. Starting with property on Key Biscayne, the couple began taking out loans on at least eight properties around Miami-Dade County from Brickell to South Miami.

The couple assumed the debt on the properties as individuals rather than purchase them through a corporation, which left them personally liable for the debt. Salazar says they did this because, for the most part, they lived in the homes they purchased.

All told, the couple took on roughly $6.8 million in debt from 2000 through 2007, a period in which real estate values were spiking. They initially did well, selling the Key Biscayne home Salazar kept from her first marriage for $915,000 and another home on the island for $2.45 million.

But as the couple purchased bigger and more expensive properties, the market suddenly cooled and their marriage soured. When the real estate bubble popped in 2008, they were still holding $5 million in home loans, most of it tied up in two homes near the University of Miami Coral Gables campus that the couple split when they separated.

The most problematic of those loans was a $2 million mortgage on the property Maietto still owns at 7400 SW 72nd Ct., which the couple purchased for $780,000, tore down and rebuilt with plans to move in upon its completion.

Maietto home.jpg
The home at 7400 SW 72nd Ct., where a lender is seeking to foreclose on a $2 million loan obtained by Maria Elvira Salazar and Renzo Maietto.

Before the new manse was built, Salazar says she separated from Maietto. She removed herself from the deed, but remained a debtor on the home mortgage loan held by JP Morgan Chase. And in early 2015, the bank claims the couple defaulted on the mortgage.

Maietto, 71, told the Miami Herald in a statement that he could not afford the monthly payments and is working on a loan modification. Salazar, 56, calls the period of financial and personal tumult “one of the most difficult times of my life.” Both Maietto and Salazar requested that the Herald submit its questions in writing.

“Our family was not exempt from the economic recession that impacted so many at the time. I was also dealing with the end of a 10-year marriage, all while managing a successful television show,” Salazar said in a statement. “During those challenging times, my priority remained focused, first and foremost, on the emotional well-being of my daughters.”

The mortgage is a large liability for Salazar, a former TV journalist who left the business as she decided to enter politics and run for the Miami congressional seat being vacated by retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Though she removed herself from the deed on her husband’s home, banks don’t care who owns a house, only who took out the mortgage loan. Her federal financial disclosure lists the value of her assets as high as $1.8 million — but her net worth drops into the red once you add in the mortgage on her ex-husband’s house.

But the problems are more than financial.

Before Salazar removed herself from the deed in mid-2010, Maietto began renting out the home, according to the Miami-Dade Property Appraiser’s Office, which investigated allegations of homestead fraud at the property following an anonymous tip five years ago. The appraiser’s office deemed that Maietto had rented out the property from 2010 through 2013, even though he claimed a property-tax exemption under the guise that the home was his primary residence.

The appraiser’s office placed a roughly $7,000 tax lien on the property on Nov. 5, 2013, which Maietto paid two months later. Salazar was on the title for only the first six months of the period in question, and says she never moved into the property after the construction of the home was complete.

“Maria Elvira had no responsibility for the homestead complaint,” Maietto said. “We divorced and I was already living in the house.”

Before they split, the couple also struggled with the debt on another home where Salazar says she lived with her daughters during her separation. Court records show Salazar and Maietto filed a lawsuit against Wells Fargo, alleging that the lender that refinanced their home loan at 6601 SW 71st Ave. had violated Florida’s unfair trade practices laws and the federal Truth in Lending Act by hiding a $10,000 fee during closing.

Attorneys for Wells Fargo called the lawsuit frivolous, said the couple received $500,000 cash in the refinancing, and convinced a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit in 2010. They argued that Salazar and Maietto were trying to get out from under their debt by filing a frivolous lawsuit and sought sanctions against the couple and their attorneys. That motion was rejected, but only after a hearing officer admonished Salazar’s attorneys for “poor judgment.”

Maietto and Salazar said the cash freed up in the refinancing was used to help pay for the construction of their house at 7400 SW 72nd Ct. They said their attorneys recommended that they sue.

One of those attorneys, Julio C. Marrero, is well-known to a neighborhood in the district Salazar hopes to represent. He was among a group of property owners sued by Miami City Hall over their stewardship of run-down apartment buildings in a gentrifying, historically black area of Coconut Grove. Marrero’s law firm also represents the couple in their ongoing foreclosure suit with JP Morgan Chase.

Salazar said Maietto hired Marrero.

“Any issues regarding the management of property owned by Mr. Marrero should be discussed directly with him,” she said.

As for the home Salazar kept in the divorce, property records show she sold it in 2012 for $1 million. She now lives in Coral Gables.