By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
Every night after the 8 p.m. free meal at the Denver Rescue Mission, 18-year-old Shantrell and 24-year-old A.K. walk six blocks to claim their spot on the porch of a vacant building at the edge of Five Points. Their home-away-from-homeless at 500 Park Avenue West is the first of six attached brick rowhouses that have served as an unofficial hotel for transients for more than a year.
The unofficial residents of 500-518 Park Avenue West have turned the covered porches into mini-apartments by propping pieces of cardboard and wood against the railings to create temporary walls against the busy street. For Shantrell and A.K., even this porch is a big improvement over the parking lot where they were sleeping until three weeks ago. That was when some friends told them about the rowhouses, and the empty spot where earlier transients had left some mattresses. The young couple added their own blankets and sleeping bag.
On October 25, even though it is warm for a late October evening, Shantrell and A.K. huddle together on the porch. The sleep they get here is short and light, they say, because they have to remain somewhat alert for drunks and crackheads who regularly get high behind the building. The day before, Shantrell's backpack was stolen right off the porch. And after nearby residents again complained to the city, the cops have been coming by more often and messing with people, A.K. explains.
"From what I heard from other people, one cop said for us to leave," says Shantrell. "He took down names and said, 'I'm going to give you guys a warning, but I'm going to come back.'"
But Shantrell also heard that the police can't force them to leave until the city reaches the actual owner of the property. "The owner obviously knows what's going on, and he doesn't really give a crap," she says.
When Dan Maas moved into a townhome just northeast of downtown two years ago, he had no idea he'd soon be living next to what he calls the "homeless hotel."
Since his place is just six blocks from the long-established Samaritan House shelter, he understood that homeless people would pass through the neighborhood. But he didn't know that they'd camp out so close, at the corner of Park Avenue West and Glenarm Street, in a vacant bungalow and a half-dozen decrepit rowhouses covered with graffiti and weathered posters. The front yards are filled with weeds, broken glass and trash, the sunken brick entryways and back yards littered with mattresses and clothing.
"It's a magnet," Maas says. "Every evening at seven, the shopping carts come, you've got people fighting over the mattresses. You'll have a hundred people over there trying to get spots!"
Those who don't get spots will spill into the neighboring yards and even the stoops of homes where people actually live. But seeing them sleeping or drinking or digging through his dumpster isn't the worst of it. "I'll be driving past the place and there will be some guy squatting, taking a crap at two in the afternoon in the middle of the lot," Maas says. He's tired of the homeless hotel, worries about what it's doing to the neighborhood. And then there's the garage behind the vacant bungalow at 2255 Glenarm — across the street from Ebert Elementary School — which has become a drug den.
"You remove those buildings or fix them up, and this whole area improves a lot," he says. "I just don't know what you can do."
In situations like this, a lot of people might call Colorado's best-known consumer advocate, Tom Martino, "The Troubleshooter." For the past two decades, the television and radio personality has gone after unethical and unresponsive companies, often by tracking down and confronting business owners on camera. Approved companies can pay as much as $5,000 annually to be part of the Troubleshooter Network, making Martino's grinning mug a regular sight on the sides of buses or in newspaper advertisements for plumbers and carpenters.
Such workers would be a welcome sight at this corner of Glenarm. But there's just one problem: One owner of the troubled properties is the Troubleshooter himself. Over the past year, Denver code-enforcement inspectors and police officers have sent numerous missives to one Thomas G. Martino regarding alleged health and safety violations at these addresses.
The city's Treasury Department has also sent Martino — a self-styled real-estate expert who frequently offers advice about mortgages and property investment on his show — numerous alerts that his properties on Welton and Glenarm streets are currently under lien for more than $140,000 in delinquent property taxes. In early October, it printed a list of all outstanding property taxes for the year. If those taxes are not paid off by October 31, the tax liens will go up for auction on November 3, allowing an investor to buy the debts owed on the properties and collect 11 percent interest annually until they are paid off by the owner. And if the taxes aren't paid in three years, the lien-holder can apply to take over the deeds to the properties.
Ladies and gentlemen, let's start out by giving a rock-star welcome to Tom Martino."
Martino takes the stage at a mid-October seminar as more than a thousand hopeful investors cheer, pens and paper ready to take notes on how to capitalize on the foreclosure crisis through short-selling and fixing-and-flipping seized properties. But as the initial speaker at the $69, weekend-long Real Estate Investor's Wealth-Building Convention, Martino's first order of business is to allay trepidation about the chaos in the world's financial markets.
He takes aim at his own profession, "the media," for spreading needless fear about sub-prime mortgages tanking the real-estate market. In fact, he says, real estate is still the safest investment you can make. Unlike stocks, real estate represents something tangible.
"Real estate can never be zero," he says. "Never. Real estate is real: The deed, deed of trust, mortgage and property itself are not dependent on the borrower, buyer or seller." This is a mantra familiar to listeners of Martino's radio show on 630 KHOW in Denver.
"There will always be a purpose for a home, for land and for commercial property; it's a finite commodity," he continues. "It is not going away. This is what you have to have faith in, so when you hold real estate, you will never be hurt, never, never. If you know how to hold, how to keep it — you know, how to spin it."
Martino goes on to talk about a few of the real-estate investments he's made over the years: a 400-acre ranch near Franktown that he subdivided and sold, keeping part to live on; some land near the Four Corners; property along I-25 that later became the ritzy Castle Pines Village. Though the program describes him as an "active real estate developer and investor in Denver," he doesn't discuss one of his current deals: a proposed $225 million development just north of downtown dubbed Welton Station.
A 31-page pitch issued to potential investors in October 2007 described Welton Station as a series of sixty- to eighty-foot-high buildings spanning two blocks of Welton Street, between 21st Street and Park Avenue West, with some 622,000 square feet of residential, office and retail space. "With prices starting in the mid $300's per foot, Welton Station's mall-like community will offer the level of amenity that many urban residents have come to expect," the proposal promised. The area, tagged by city planners as Arapahoe Square and with zoning that allows mid-level high-rises, had long been targeted by developers looking to do deals near downtown, but by 2006, the blocks held just a few old buildings and a lot of vacant lots and parking lots.
When the Welton Station project went public last fall, the lead partners were listed as Justin Henderson and Samuel Mahnke. The duo had attempted several earlier projects, including one working with Donald Trump to build the city's highest tower next to the El Jebel building at 1770 Sherman Street, another pushing for a luxury hotel near the same site. Both efforts fell through in 2006. Late that year, Henderson and Mahnke began quietly assembling land on the 2100 and 2200 blocks of Welton, using various company names to buy up properties: 600 Park Avenue West was purchased by Mahnke's Welton Park, LLC; Henderson's Triton Land Development picked up 2200 Welton; Henderson's Park Avenue Development, LLC, bought 2236 Welton. By February 2007, they'd pulled together nineteen parcels at a total cost of $10 million, and added a valuable partner, Tom Martino, to whom they'd been introduced by mutual friends. "I basically asked him if he was interested in investing," Henderson says. And he was.
"Originally we were going to do a live/work/play type of community, similar to what they want to do down at Union Station, a smaller version with retail on the bottom and residential and office kind of mixed in on the top," Henderson explains.
Six of those lots were purchased by Welton Street Properties, LLC, a corporation registered by Henderson and Tom Martino. The thirteen lots that were purchased by other entities were soon deeded over to Welton Street Properties, and Barrons Development posted a notice on its website that the company "has recently [entered] into a joint venture with national radio celebrity 'Troubleshooter' Tom Martino to develop approximately 2.25 million feet of Downtown Denver's Uptown Business District." Welton Street Properties' most recent filing with the Colorado Secretary of State's office lists Martino as the registered agent, along with his home address in Franktown.
Although two unrelated projects in the neighborhood — a block of townhomes called the Glenarm Brownstones and a mixed-use residential low-rise named Welton Place — have had sales centers installed on their sites for months, there's been no visible activity around Welton Station over the past year. The buildings that were on the properties when they were purchased — an old RTD garage, tightly secured, as well as a vacant bungalow and a group of rowhouses — are still the only structures there.
"Unfortunately, with the market conditions the way they are, we've kind of got to go back to the drawing board and get an idea of what's going to make sense — not just now, but the next five or ten years," says Henderson. "We have to go with what makes sense with the marketplace. There's a big tightening on credit. As much as I'd love to tell you that we had our financing in place, I just don't have it right now."
As for the $140,000 in delinquent property taxes on the project, Henderson says that's merely an oversight. But by Tuesday — three days before the final deadline — the Denver treasurer's office had not yet received the payments for the company's properties.
The overdue property taxes are not the city's only concern with the Welton Street Properties addresses. In July 2007, a neighbor called 911 to report a man lying unconscious behind the rowhouses at 500-518 Park Avenue West, prompting a response from EMS personnel and police. The next month, another individual phoned 911 at 3 a.m. to say that "many homeless people are sleeping in a vacant building" at 508 Park Avenue West and requested that an officer show up to check on their welfare. Police were called several other times on reports of suspicious persons on the property; they also detained vehicles stopped in the alley.
By June of this summer, the bungalow and rowhouses had made it onto the city's Neglected and Derelict Building List, and Inspector Anthony Sandoval of the city's Neighborhood Inspection unit was making frequent visits to the block.
"It's not unlawful to own unoccupied property," says Denver Community Planning and Development Department spokesman Julius Zsako. "However, it must be maintained, and one of the key elements of maintenance is no unauthorized access."
Sandoval cited Welton Street Properties for excessive vegetation and trash on the lots. He also noted that the rear doors of the rowhouse units had been kicked in, and homeless people were living inside. This led to the Denver Department of Environmental Health dispatching an inspector, who found human feces behind the building.
According to Environmental Health spokeswoman Meghan Hughes, the inspector then contacted the nearby Kingdom of Glory Christian Center, which sent over some outreach workers to help get the homeless to local shelters — and away from the vacant buildings. The health department posted an order to vacate on the rowhomes and the bungalow and sent notices to Welton Street Properties — at Martino's Franktown home — that the buildings needed to be properly secured. When no action was taken, an emergency board-up order was issued and city crews were sent out to cover the windows and doors with plywood. On June 20, a $100 lien for the cost of "securing of vacant and/or unsafe building" was sent to Martino. That lien was released on July 12, after payment was received.
Sandoval says he was referred to Henderson as the point person on the properties, and they met several times at the site to discuss how the problem could be mitigated. Henderson, whom Sandoval characterizes as "extremely cooperative," says he mowed the weeds, put up a fence behind the rowhouses and hired workers to haul away several truckloads of garbage. "It got to the point where most of the teams were not interested in going out on a consistent basis and keeping it up because of things that they found," Henderson says. "Needles. Ugly things that most people won't touch. We've gone out and cleaned them all up several times."
Adrian Zabolitzki knows the homeless hotel well; he has a clear view of it from the front porch of his apartment across Park Avenue West. "It seems every few weeks the cops come and clear everyone out, but then a couple days go by and it goes back to the way it was," he says. Zabolitzki thinks that whoever the "eyesore" buildings belong to "has either got to sell it or clean it up or do something with it."
Then he learns that Tom Martino is the registered agent for the company that owns the properties. "That's ironic," Zabolitzki says, gazing across the street at the houses. "You'd think that he of all people would be more forthright about keeping up their property."
If Martino is anything, it's forthright.
After working as a reporter for several East Coast TV stations, Martino began his career in Denver at CBS4 in 1981. His aggressive style quickly set him apart from other consumer reporters. On-camera confrontations featuring Martino and a cameraman surprising crooked business owners in a parking lot or office entryway became a staple of the Troubleshooter segments. His take-no-prisoners approach also found a following on his KHOW show, which he developed through the '90s as a kind of call center where listeners could get advice and help with their consumer issues. The growth of his offshoot "Referral List," an online catalogue of companies ranging from housepainters to accountants, became a concern to his bosses at CBS4, who worried about the appearance of a conflict of interest. In 1999, Martino left Channel 4 to join the new team at Fox31.
The very first story Martino did for Fox was about "a landowner who'd turned his property into a trash heap" ("Fox on the Run," July 27, 2000). He concluded the segment with the proclamation "I'm Tom Martino the Troubleshooter — and I'm back!"
He sure was. The next year he got a syndication deal with Westwood One, which sent his radio show to over 200 markets across the country. Westwood One marketed Martino as "the ultimate consumer advocate." The syndication deal ended in 2006 ("Off Mike," June 29, 2006).
Even though his spots on Fox31 clearly cast him in the role of a reporter and the bio on the KHOW website refers to his "journalism career," Martino routinely says that he's a consumer advocate, not a journalist. This means he can continue to engage in private business ventures while at the same time pushing his public persona. But sometimes the two overlap.
Charles Wahlen is a longtime business partner of Martino in dozens of real-estate ventures across Colorado and Florida. Wahlen Properties is listed as a trusted real-estate group on Martino's Referral List (www.referralList.com), which took over for Troubleshooter.com earlier this year. Martino's producer, Mike Bassett, also does work for Wahlen Properties. Matt Klaess, a real-estate expert who appears regularly on the radio show, is an owner of American Guarantee Mortgage; the company's website features large photos of Martino proudly informing potential customers that the company is a member of the Troubleshooter Referral List. Property records show that in July 2007, Klaess used $285,000 borrowed from Martino to purchase a house in the Jefferson Park neighborhood; the house has since been deeded over to Klaess's brother, John. American Guaranty Real Estate originally put the house on the market for $425,000, advertising it as a "scrape-off." But the company's website — which notes that American Guaranty Real Estate is "a member of Tom Martino's exclusive referral list" — recently posted the property for the drastically reduced price of $120,000.
American Guarantee is also a major sponsor of the October real-estate seminar organized by William Bronchick, a real-estate expert who's a frequent guest on Martino's show and often advises investors that "the time to buy is when the blood is running in the streets."
Buying run-down properties can be tricky. At Bronchick's seminar, Martino illustrates the situation with a story about a weight-loss camp for girls near where he grew up in upstate New York.
"Now, a lot of shy guys around that little town didn't do very well with ladies, but they found that if they went out to this camp right after the girls had successfully — almost ready to go home, that the girls didn't realize how pretty they were and how attractive they were. They still had a bad self-image," he explains. "So it was easier to go out on dates and have a good time. But the girls always had great personalities; they were fun, they were smart. And a lot of the cool guys wouldn't go out there because their perception was skewed."
The audience chuckles.
"So here's the number-one rule I take from that," Martino concludes. "Take advantage of false perceptions. Take advantage of it."
There are no false perceptions at the corner of Park Avenue West and Glenarm: These properties are ugly through and through.
Bob Pailet and three other investors had bought the rowhouses and bungalows back in 1981, and for more than two decades offered them as low-cost rentals. In 2004, a body was discovered in 500 Park Avenue West; the renter, who often sublet an extra room to needy day laborers, had been beaten to death with a tire iron. A few years later, Pailet says, his group voted to sell their holdings.
"We had to decide, because we were no longer good owners," he says. "One of the partners moved out of state. We either would have had to fix them up or tear them down, so we chose to sell and let someone else take them over."
When they sold the buildings to Welton Street Properties for $921,000 in January 2007, the bungalow still had tenants, but they left after Welton Street Properties took ownership. The rowhomes had been cleared of tenants and boarded up.
Robin, who's claimed the porch of the rowhouse at 508 Park Avenue West, knows to be careful when you're walking around. She's been on the streets for three years, ever since she lost her job and couldn't make rent. "You have to know how to be homeless," she says wearily. "Plastic, cardboard. There's a mattress under here. That helps. I'm not on cardboard like I'm usually on. Cardboard helps because you're not laying on that cement."
She does most of her sleeping during the day, which is safer for a woman. "One time there was this campsite I was at, and I woke up and there were three men around me, and I don't know what they were planning on doing," she remembers. "But luckily, I woke up." The rowhouse porches are much more accommodating, she says, and were very popular until the police came earlier this month and cleared everyone out. "The police lady said they had a meeting about this place," Robin adds.
On October 17, after Westword contacted the city planning department about the properties, the city called a meeting with Neighborhood Inspection, the Denver police and the property owners to discuss ways to remediate the problems. In attendance were Justin Henderson, Martino partner Chuck Wahlen and his daughter, Andrea Wahlen; the registered agent for the company that owns the properties, Tom Martino, was not present. According to Officer Layla DeStaffany, one of two homeless outreach police officers for the city, the group came to an agreement that the property would be cleaned up soon.
On October 22, the city issued a letter to Tom Martino asking that he "submit a remedial plan for the purpose of rehabilitating the cited property." Failure to comply could result in fines of up to $999 per day or an injunction for the city to take possession of the property.
Henderson doesn't think it will come to that. "We recognize that there's a problem," he says. "That's why we sat down with the city and police department to try to come up with some sort of solution." Martino wasn't there because he's a hands-off investor, according to Henderson. "We have an operating agreement where I'm actually in charge of taking care of the entitlements and the details," he says. "He understood what we were doing. He understands the end result, and I guess he doesn't really need to know the details of how entitlement works."
Martino's radio producer, Mike Bassett, replied to e-mails sent to Troubleshooter.com, confirming that Martino is one of a group of investors involved with the project. "Yeah, it was bought as an investment. Some of it they planned to develop and others they might sell," he says. Martino did not respond to Westword's calls and e-mails.
After the meeting, the ownership group signed a "no trespassing order," which will allow the police to roust anyone found on the properties. But although efforts have been made to board up the garage behind the bungalow, it is still accessible through a broken door. This past weekend, the floor was littered with lighter-burned soda cans and syringes, evidence of recent drug-use activity; the yard around it was dotted with human feces. The owners are currently looking for a contractor to demolish the bungalow and garage, Henderson says.
As for the rowhouses, the owners are considering whether they should be fenced, remodeled — or demolished altogether. In the meantime, they've taken down the porch railings so that the homeless can't use them to create temporary walls. But this hasn't discouraged people from coming back to the porches. Though their place is now exposed to the street, Shantrell and A.K. aren't willing to give up their spot just yet.
Mark Herlinger, whose kids attend Ebert Elementary, is head of the school's safety committee. A couple of weeks ago, the school's principal told him that transients had been spotted living in one of the garages on the properties. "Even if there's just one kid, one incident occurred, that would be one too many," he says. On October 20, Herlinger called the Denver police to complain. He learned that there'd been a meeting to discuss the situation a few days before. He hadn't known that Martino was involved with the properties.
"I'm actually kind of a fan of his, really," says Herlinger. "Who can't be, especially if you're somebody he's helped out? Being a junior-league real-estate investor myself, I certainly admire someone who seems to have done well with it. But I don't know any of the details of what he owns around town or his reputation on that level. I just know what he talks about on the radio. I try to learn from him. If he's giving out advice, my ears prick up."