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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Real estate broker: Lawsuit filed by PIP legislators is part of broader agenda

Puerto Rican Independence Party Sen. María de Lourdes Santiago Negrón and Rep. Denis Márquez Lebrón

By The Star Staff

The head of a real estate company accused of illegal acts in handling properties declared public nuisances said Monday that Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) lawmakers’ allegations against the firm are part of a broader political agenda.

PIP Sen. María de Lourdes Santiago Negrón and Rep. Denis Márquez Lebrón filed a complaint with the Department of Justice last week regarding an alleged scheme involving 22 municipalities, Universal Properties Realty and Francis & Gueits law firm in the handling of declarations of public nuisances and eminent domain proceedings. The lawmakers claimed that properties that were in good condition were declared a public nuisance and that the owners of the properties were not adequately notified of the decision or paid just compensation.

Universal Properties real estate broker Andrés Reyes urged the PIP lawmakers to broaden their investigation to include the nonprofit corporation Center for the Reconstruction of the Habitat Inc., which receives public funds from municipalities. The center’s website says it works to transform properties declared public nuisances into assets communities can use.

“Our company is legal, and all our documents prove it, so we have no problem with being audited,” Reyes said. “However, the investigation requested by the PIP legislators is incomplete unless all companies that offer management or advisory services on public nuisances for municipalities are investigated.”

“Santiago and Márquez held a press conference against our company …” he added. “Still, they did not mention the Center for the Reconstruction of the Habitat, which does invoice public funds to the municipalities.”

Reyes said Center for the Reconstruction of the Habitat Inc., a nonprofit group, charges thousands of dollars to municipalities without achieving a single result, but was not included in the complaint. He said the Center is owned by Luis O. Gallardo, who previously ran for public office under the PIP banner.

Reyes charged that the PIP legislators made the accusations and used false information to manipulate public opinion and favor particular interests, including the Center for the Reconstruction of the Habitat.

“The Center for the Reconstruction of the Habitat Inc. intends to monopolize the management of public nuisances using state and federal public funds through advisory contracts with various municipalities,” the broker said. “Among these, the cities of Loíza, Vega Alta, Barceloneta, Toa Baja, Hormigueros, Camuy, Isabela, Manatí and Ponce, amounting to more than half a million dollars.”

Reyes said the Center additionally bills municipalities for the legal representation fees required to carry out the necessary legal and judicial actions in the acquisition and disposition of properties in a condition of public nuisance, including the eminent domain or forced expropriation process, and the sale of properties in condition of public nuisance for an aggregate cost of up to $9,750 for each case presented in court. At that rate, he said, the Center’s efforts could amount to a total annual amount of $360,000 for each municipality.

He also said the nonprofit intends to integrate into the process of declaring public nuisances the creation of an organization known as “Community Land Banks,” through which it intends to grant the administration of the properties declared a public nuisance to a select group, private and autonomous and independent of the municipality, which would be responsible for disposing of the properties declared a public nuisance as it deems appropriate.

“This would give this group great decision-making and financial freedom over the disposition of the properties declared public nuisances, since [it] would be authorized to sell, donate, lease, and even carry out financing procedures,” Reyes said regarding the Center. “In addition, this organization would not have to submit to any government control because it would function as a private corporate entity.”

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