By Michael E. Miller
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Several neighbors, mostly young professional women, stop to chat. As usual the canines take turns growling at anyone who tries to pet them. Font and Wilets are quite the opposite of their gnarly dogs. The gregarious, dark-haired lawyers joke about Alice's ceaseless barking fits, often directed at their roommate Kathy. "It's a female thing," cracks Wilets, a Seattle native.
As the chatter continues, an electronic gate slowly slides open. A helmeted policeman on a motorcycle cruises through and heads toward the group. He waves as he buzzes past. It is Rufus Devane, a Miami cop and one of their neighbors.
Welcome to St. Hugh Oaks Village, the City of Miami's first subsidized housing project for the relatively rich, which opened in 1996 and filled up this past fall. What better place to locate such an ambitious undertaking than one of Miami-Dade County's poorest neighborhoods: the so-called black Grove, which was settled by Bahamian immigrants in the late 1800s. The village's three acres, located at Douglas Road and Franklin Street, are rimmed by a six-foot-tall, spiked metal fence and a ten-foot-tall chainlink barrier. The only homeless here are the Mercedes, Lexus, Jaguar, and 4Runners parked on the winding drive.
Just to the north lies the Charlotte Jane Memorial Cemetery, where dozens of Bahamian settlers are buried. To the east are many of the quaint wooden houses that black pioneers built; some are occupied by their children and grandchildren. To the south, beyond a stand of tall trees, lies the mainly white and principally posh neighborhood known as Coconut Grove Park.
St. Hugh Oaks didn't start out this way. In 1986 Miami commissioners passed a resolution stating that St. Hugh Oaks would be built to address "a severe shortage of housing" for families of "low-to-moderate income." So who ended up here? Lawyers, realtors, an architect, a motel owner, a restaurateur, a landscape designer, a software marketer, and a computer graphics artist, to name a few. The homeowners, which include couples and singles, are also diverse: eight black Americans, eight Anglo Americans, three Cubans, three Argentines, one Dominican, one Guatemalan, one Puerto Rican, one French-Canadian, one Haitian-Canadian, and a French woman. In all the population stands at 50 humans (including kids and roommates), eight dogs, and thirteen cats, according to Font, president of the St. Hugh Oaks condominium association.
Infuriating to some neighbors: Not one low-income resident of the black Grove qualified to buy any of the 23 three-bedroom homes in St. Hugh Oaks.
Now inside their house, Wilets and Font are sitting at their dinner table sipping wine. Font and Harvey are playing tug of war with a torn and stretched white T-shirt. Wilets slumps into his chair. Alice naps on the white linoleum in a hallway leading to the front door. Three years ago they were the first people to move into St. Hugh Oaks. They paid just $115,000 for a three-bedroom house that city officials say cost $155,000 to build. In the end the city spent $3.5 million on the project, according to Jeff Hepburn, assistant director of the city's housing division. That does not include administrative costs, such as salaries of city employees who supervised twelve years of planning, construction, and sales.
"I'm a die-hard liberal, but this is like social engineering gone awry," suggests Wilets. "It's not really fair for the city to subsidize so that rich people [can] buy here." He hastens to justify the purchase. He and Font are not wealthy. Both are paying off tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. They won't say how much they earn now, but when they bought the house, Wilets earned $29,000 per year as a legal-writing instructor at the University of Miami; Font was making about $12,000 as a law clerk. They and their roommate Kathy all own Honda Civics. "I don't feel guilty about living here because if we didn't buy it, someone else would have," Wilets asserts.
The oak-tree-shaded block of land that is now St. Hugh Oaks has a jumbled history that in many ways mirrors Miami's trajectory. That saga includes black and white pioneers, a real estate mogul named Hugh, the Catholic Church, two real estate developers from the Cuban diaspora (one convicted for money laundering), city commissioners promoting a controversial project, riled-up neighborhood groups, and a hurricane.
At the turn of the Twentieth Century, a white pioneer named Joseph Frow owned the tract -- Block 37 on the city plat map -- and hundreds of other acres that encompassed much of Coconut Grove. Handwritten property records on microfilm at the County Recorder's library downtown indicate that in 1912, Frow's wife sold most of the block's twenty lots to E.W.F. Stirrup, a black Bahamian who moved to the Grove from Key West in 1899. Stirrup established a small, residential, real estate empire by building modest wooden houses and selling them off, mainly to other Bahamians.