Real estate

Miami-area real estate developer carves out a niche in affordable housing


Second-generation affordable housing developer Raul Rodriguez is shown in his Li’l Abner I apartment community in the Miami area on Tuesday, August 30, 2022.

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Strolling through Sweetwater’s Li’l Abner I apartment complex on a recent sweltering afternoon, Raul Rodriguez didn’t break a sweat. He greeted everyone he met as if he had known them for years. From the jovial reactions of the residents to the smiling staff members, it’s highly likely that he did.

As developer of the 87-unit apartment complex and manager of the adjacent 900-unit Li’l Abner mobile home park, Rodriguez, 44, focuses his real estate business exclusively on affordable housing.

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He used his upbringing as the son of a self-taught real estate investor and his experience in real estate to support the mobile home community he grew up working in. At a time when the region needs many more houses at affordable prices and when the economic dynamics are difficult. to build them, he is doing his part to help solve the housing affordability crisis in Miami-Dade County.

Rodriguez’s father always instilled in him the importance of remembering his family’s humble beginnings in Sweetwater and giving back whenever possible.

This sentiment resulted in young Rodriguez’s commitment to providing low-income housing, such as the future Li’l Abner II apartment complex. Scheduled to open in 2023, the community will have another 244 affordable apartments within walking distance of Li’l Abner I.

He also believes in giving back through philanthropy. In 2010, he started the Li’l Abner Foundation, a non-profit organization that benefits members of the Sweetwater community by providing free health services, student camps and more.

When Rodriguez isn’t working on development plans, the avid climber prepares to continue climbing the seven tallest mountains in the world. He thinks the difficulty required to do so parallels the challenges of developing affordable housing in Miami-Dade.

In 1982, Rodriguez’s father, Raul Rodriguez Sr., purchased Li’l Abner Mobile Home Park. A Cuban immigrant, Rodriguez Sr. earned money selling newspapers and washing dishes. He started out in real estate buying one small property at a time and eventually moved into full-time park management.

Young Rodriguez began learning the ins and outs of the mobile home park as a child. At nine, he was picking up trash and helping out in whatever way he could, while getting to know the locals.

From then on it became a staple there. During his studies, every Wednesday afternoon, during spring or winter break and during the summer, he did many tasks in the mobile home community and helped his father with the care of the houses.

“While my friends were going to the beach and partying, I had to go to work,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve seen what people go through in life who haven’t been as lucky as me and it humbled me.”

After graduating from Belen Jesuit Preparatory School in Sweetwater, Rodriguez studied for two years in Spain on a program at Saint Thomas University, followed by two years at the University of Anchorage. He attended Florida International University, before raising a family of five children and deciding to pursue a career in real estate development.

For several years, Rodriguez noted how flooding and annual South Florida hurricane season made life difficult for residents of mobile homes. He asked his father to switch from adding more mobile homes on nearby land to building something more durable.

“I went to my dad and asked him if instead of putting more mobile homes, why don’t we try to build something solid, something concrete in which some of the former residents here who don’t cannot maintain mobile homes could move in,” he said in a recent interview.

Li’l Abner I, an affordable housing complex for residents 55 and older, opened in 2013. Rodriguez intended to offer apartment rentals to tenants who had previously lived in mobile homes in the nearby park.

Aurora Ruiz Cortez, 78, moved from the Li’l Abner mobile home park to the Li’l Abner I apartment complex after the death of her husband. Cortex takes a look at the court on Thursday, September 15, 2022. Carl Just [email protected]

Adela Castellon, 90, has lived in one of the apartments for seven years. Before moving there in 2015, she lived for several years in the nearby mobile home park. She remembers seeing Rodriguez as a youngster working on the property, before he took over the family business.

She appreciates her apartment upgrade above the mobile home park.

“It’s better to live here because it feels safe here,” she said, referring to hurricane risk in South Florida. “I feel comfortable and completely safe.”

Aurora Ruiz Cortez, 78, another apartment resident who lived in a mobile home, moved from Cuba to Miami to be closer to her daughters Yamile, 51, and Mabel, 55. As salsa music played in the background of the aged care center she visits frequently, she spoke of the Sunday dinners with sumptuous oxtails her daughters love to eat and the quality of life her apartment has given her brought.

Looking for affordable housing options, Cortez discovered Li’l Abner I Apartments. She was thrilled when she found out she qualified for an apartment.

“There’s no comparison between the trailer and my apartment,” she says.

Aurora Ruiz Cortez, 78, a resident of the Li’l Abner I apartment complex, enjoys reading and tending to her plants. Cortex says, “I feel comfortable and completely safe.” Carl Just [email protected]

Financing affordable housing ventures is not easy for any developer. Public-private partnerships were key to building Li’l Abner I, but they go no further. Rodriguez is also the founder and CEO of National Health Transport, a company providing emergency transportation services for hospitals, health centers, nursing homes, among others. The income from this business helps him support his real estate business.

Rodriguez said to increase building materials and insurance the costs have made it more difficult for developers to build affordable housing. Additionally, escalating property taxes can easily deter developers from building affordable homes.

He estimated his insurance costs for the mobile home park and the Li’l Abner I property increased by 300% over the past five years, from $67,000 to $117,000. Building for people earning $41,100 a year or 60% of the region’s median income of $68,300 has become more difficult due to these growing expenses.

Bluenest Development CEO Salim Chraibi also knows the challenges of building affordable housing in Miami-Dade’s 34 municipalities. He thinks County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava is doing an adequate job of supporting local affordable housing development with a variety of incentive programs.

However, in Miami, Chraibi said developers could use a lot more, though.

“In the city of Miami, clearance takes so long that a lot of people avoid it,” he said. “It is very difficult to get a license there. I think Mayor Levine Cava is really pushing and other people should look to his work as an example, especially in low-income areas like Liberty City and Brownsville.

Housing Trust Group is a Coconut Grove-based affordable housing developer with 40 years of experience in Florida and the Southeast. Its CEO, Matthew Rieger, said more federal government resources were needed to be able to build more affordable homes.

“We have incredible demand because incomes haven’t increased enough for people to afford market-priced rentals,” Rieger said. “Because of this, the need for affordable housing is huge. A huge amount of resources must be allocated to solve this problem. Even if I have all the resources tomorrow, the houses will not be built tomorrow. We are talking about years.

Matthew A. Rieger is CEO of Housing Trust Group, an affordable housing developer with 40 years of experience in Florida and the Southeast. Rieger says “the need for affordable housing is huge.” Jose A. Iglesias [email protected]

Rodriguez said the pandemic has made Miami-Dade’s home affordability crisis worse. Without affordable housing for local workers, Rodriguez sees the county’s workforce moving only to people who can afford to live in the area. Increasingly, workers in various local services and hospitality are leaving because their lower and stagnant wages no longer allow them to make ends meet and afford to live in the county or even in South Florida. .

Rodriguez noticed the exodus due to the county’s higher cost of living.

As he prepares for the opening next year of his Li’l Abner II apartment community, he is well aware of the growing waiting list of nearly 1,000 names for 244 apartments. The long list reflects Miami-Dade residents’ urgent need for working-class housing.

Rodriguez said his work — and others committed to equitable access to housing — is just the beginning of a solution to the affordability crisis.

“The housing market we’re facing is a mountain right now,” he said, thinking like a climber. “We need to strategize how to accomplish the mission to escalate it properly.”

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Michael Butler writes about the residential and commercial real estate industry and local housing market trends. Like Miami’s diverse population, Butler, a graduate of Temple University, has both local roots and Panamanian heritage.