Yuppies in the Hood

Welcome to St. Hugh Oaks, Miami's first subsidized housing project for the affluent

In contrast to their white neighbors, black Grovites were enthusiastic about St. Hugh Oaks. In 1991 81 people, mostly black Grove natives, signed up for a chance to buy there. "I wanted to go back to my neighborhood," says Parnice Lee, a postal clerk who lives with two of her three children in West Little River, ten miles north of Coconut Grove. Lee grew up on Franklin Avenue, a stone's throw from the old St. Hugh Academy; her mom still lives there. Lee sent the city an application for a St. Hugh Oaks house. The projected $65,000 to $90,000 price tag seemed like a dream.

Millicent Bain also had visions of owning a house in St. Hugh Oaks. She lived about three blocks away on Williams Avenue in the Sixties and Seventies. Her great-grandparents were among the first Bahamians to settle in Coconut Grove, moving from Key West in the late 1800s. Her mother, as well as several aunts and grandparents, are buried across from St. Hugh Oaks. A Coral Gables code enforcement officer and single mother, Bain and her fourteen-year-old daughter now live in an old condominium on Bird Road, far from the historic area where she grew up. "St. Hugh Oaks is where we wanted to be," Bain says. "It was a dream for myself and my daughter."

But it soon became clear that St. Hugh Oaks would never be home to low-wage earners. City housing officials estimated the 23-house plan would require buyers to pay about $97,000 per home. As a result they concluded the homes "would be marketed exclusively to moderate-income households that will have discretionary income to further support and strengthen the retail/service market in the immediate area," according to a 1991 memo authored by Jeff Hepburn, assistant director of the city's housing division. In May of that year the commission approved a construction permit.

Why the change in orientation? Hepburn explains it this way: "It was important to the city at that point to try to do a project that would bring moderate-income families back into the city or that area of the Grove. This was an attempt to bring 23 families who may have moved out to Kendall or Pembroke Pines back into the city to become tax-paying citizens."

In 1992 the city sunk $2.2 million of public money into a contract with Associates Construction Corporation, which had submitted the lowest bid to build the St. Hugh Oaks homes, according to city records.

When construction finally began, the project was plagued by expensive mistakes. Damage from Hurricane Andrew in 1992 led to more delays and cost overruns.

Two years later commissioners raised the sale price to $115,000 per home, blaming Hurricane Andrew for the increase. To qualify for a mortgage, a prospective buyer would need to earn nearly $49,000 per year, $13,000 more than the median income for a family of four in Dade County at that time, according to a Herald story on St. Hugh Oaks.

Lawyer Neil Shiver, a black Grovite, blames commissioners. "The city paid $1.1 million for the property! That's too much for property you are going to build affordable houses on," he asserts from his office in a small house a few blocks away from St. Hugh Oaks. According to Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk of DPZ: "That was a tough beginning."

In 1994 Shiver, a public defender at the time, sued the city on behalf of Millicent Bain, Parnice Lee, and two other black Grovites. He argued that because the city was using housing bonds to finance St. Hugh Oaks, the homes had to be available to low-income residents from the area.

"The whole idea of an affordable housing project is to give people who rent an opportunity to own," Shiver says. "I figure if you change someone's living conditions, you can then foster their dreams, you can then change their behavior, and you give them some self-worth."

Circuit Court Judge Gisela Cardonne didn't see it that way. In December 1994 she dismissed Shiver's petition to force the commissioners to lower the price. An appeals panel upheld her decision in 1995.

"St. Hugh Oaks would have been a great opportunity for individuals from this community to upgrade their living standards," Shiver huffs. The city denied us that ... We knew once the price hit $115,000 no one from this community would get in. So they priced us out of the market. The city kicked our butts."

But Bain did not surrender. Her heart still set on living in St. Hugh Oaks, she shopped around for a mortgage and even applied (unsuccessfully) for a federal housing loan. Early last year she reluctantly withdrew her application. "I shouldn't have been priced out of my neighborhood," she says. "I don't choose to live in Kendall. I don't choose to go to North Miami-Dade. That area [Coconut Grove] is my home.

"I thought [St. Hugh Oaks] was supposed to benefit middle-income people who grew up here, that it was built to keep working, middle-class people in Coconut Grove," Bain explains. "Well it didn't turn out to be that way. After investing I don't know how much money and time, I finally gave up. I was highly disappointed."

Jeff Hepburn, who is black, maintains the city was not obligated to sell any of the houses to low-income residents, despite the language of the original resolution.

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