Decaying and neglected homes are Orson Benn's legacy in Miami-Dade County, where the New York lender and his associates at Argent Mortgage wrote $349 million in loans on nearly 2,000 properties.
At least 600 of the homes entered the foreclosure process, nearly three times the rate of other homes in Miami-Dade.
The troubled properties -- apartments, town homes and suburban ranches -- cut across the county, with tight clusters in the north and west. Nearly half are in West Kendall. Ten percent are in Miami, concentrated in Liberty City. Five percent are in Hialeah and Miami Gardens.
Experts say the impact of foreclosured homes on neighborhoods will be felt for years.
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"It is a vicious cycle, " said Miami real estate attorney Samira Ghazal. "The houses become vacant, they get vandalized, and more houses become foreclosures."
While it's unclear how many of Benn's loans are based on false and misleading information, The Miami Herald found hundreds of questionable transactions surrounding the mortgages.
'TOOL OF CHOICE'
Records show that more than a quarter of the homes were flipped without any exchange of money, using quitclaim deeds, which experts say are a red flag.
"Quitclaim deeds are the tool of choice, if you will, of fraudsters, " Miami-Dade Mortgage Fraud Task Force Chairman Glenn Theobald said.
In addition, at least 6 percent of Benn's loans went to industry insiders -- some of whom took mortgages on multiple homes. In one case, the newspaper found, a mortgage broker took four loans in a single month. All but one of the homes are now in foreclosure.
Many of the houses blight their communities, dragging property values down and attracting crime.
Sergio Sanchez manages a complex of 159 town homes in northwest Miami-Dade. Nine were purchased with Benn loans; four of those are in foreclosure.
"They are a big, big problem, " Sanchez said, adding that they attract drug dealers, prostitutes and squatters. "The owners don't care if they're turning the development upside down."
More often than not, it's the neighbors who suffer, not the absentee owners who took the Benn loans.
South Miami-Dade homeowner Melinda Mizrachi said her neighbors, who took an Argent loan in 2005, left in the middle of the night a few months ago.
Ever since, their abandoned home has been falling into disrepair. Palm fronds and trash litter the overgrown yard of the house, which sold for $300,000 three years ago. "It's bringing down the value of our home, " Mizrachi said.
Down the street from Mizrachi's house are three other properties with Argent loans that are in some stage of foreclosure.
In Liberty City, two homes along 19th Avenue were bought with Argent loans in 2005. Today, one has been razed, and the other, empty for many months, is shut with a bicycle lock.
Sometimes, the victims are renters who have never heard of Argent or Benn, and have no idea their landlord is in financial trouble.
In West Miami, a house on Southwest 35th Street has had three Argent loans since 2004. New renter Dayami Reyes said she was stunned when she discovered that the house was in foreclosure the day after she signed a six-month lease.
She said she was even more surprised when she discovered that a broken pipe had been spewing raw sewage into the backyard for months. Reyes was able to fix the pipe. But after investing more than $3,500 in rent and deposits, her future is uncertain. "The owner lied to us, " Reyes' mother, Marilyn Canis, said. "They never told me it was in foreclosure."
In North Miami, a mortgage broker took a Benn loan for a house along Northwest First Avenue. Months later, she sold the property. The new owners immediately divided the place into at least four rental units, including two in the garage, neighbors said.
Eventually, the new owners were evicted.
"When they got foreclosed on, they gutted the house, " neighbor Kacey Schock said. "They took all the appliances and everything out of it. There's no floor, hardly any walls, and then they just took off."
Schock, who is trying to sell her own house, said her prospects are bleak.
"I think that we'll never be able to sell our place until we fix that place up, " she said. "That place is trashed."