Yuppies in the Hood

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

Then-City Manager Cesar Odio took a position similar to Hepburn's. In a September 1996 memo to Commissioner J.L. Plummer, he wrote: "From the onset the proposed St. Hugh Oaks Village Condominium project was designed to provide affordable housing opportunities to moderate-income families." Plummer, who says he doesn't recall the memo, acknowledges St. Hugh Oaks was first intended to include low-income residents. But he believes the city couldn't justify selling the houses for less than $115,000. "There's got to be a line somewhere drawn as to what is the loss that you can afford to take," Plummer notes.

Parnice Lee offers this assessment: "I just think they didn't want too many blacks in there."

With low-income residents out of the equation, the emergence of St. Hugh Oaks as a suburban island in the black Grove was poised to begin. But it came slowly. The houses were complete in 1995, but remained unoccupied while Shiver's lawsuit was being litigated. The development, sealed off by a padlocked chainlink fence, resembled a quaint prison yard. At first the city had trouble luring buyers. "When we moved in, it was very bizarre. It felt like a ghost town," recalls resident Luis Font, who had been living at his parents' house in Westchester. "People who came to see the homes would say things like, 'It's really a shame this is located where it is.' It was obvious they were racist. It was really offensive. We were starting to wonder whether anybody would ever move in."

But after word got around that the city was selling three-bedroom homes in Coconut Grove for $115,000, offers started to roll in. One person wanted to buy all of them, according to realtor Rosy Cancela, who handled the sales for the city. But commissioners would not allow it. As far as Cancela is concerned, St. Hugh Oaks was always intended for the affluent. "It is totally what the city intended," she says. "It's a great investment." Those words have become a mantra at St. Hugh Oaks.

The project is not exactly what architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk intended. They are among the founders of a movement known as New Urbanism, in which architects strive to design neighborhoods that will encourage foot travel and community interaction. "You make demarcations of territory that don't send a message of being exclusionary," Plater-Zyberk explains. For example DPZ's original St. Hugh Oaks design called for a hip-high picket fence around the perimeter. But the new owners voted for an eight-foot-high barrier. Plater-Zyberk pushed for a five-foot fence. They settled on six feet.

Plater-Zyberk thinks the fence may send an offensive message to neighbors of St. Hugh Oaks. "There's a psychological consequence in which it starts being aggressive, not protective. I'd much rather see a street lined with picket fences," she laments. The dominant Anglo culture in the United States isn't very concerned with public spaces, she adds. "In Europe or South America, there's a clear demarcation of private property with walls and doors, but there's a great sense of responsibility to embellish the public realm," she says. "[In the United States] we're just taking care of our private area." DPZ's initial design attempted to connect St. Hugh Oaks with the outside world by constructing an ivy-covered pergola joining the entrance to an adjacent bus stop. But the city scratched the idea as too expensive.

Most St. Hugh Oaks residents like their intimidating fence and electronic front gate. "I don't think I would have purchased the home without the security here," says Victoria Shaw, a professional dog trainer, who is Anglo and drives a Chevrolet van. Shaw, who calls St. Hugh Oaks residents "middle- income," bought the complex's last available house this past fall. She knows the fence isn't impermeable, but believes it deters thieves. "I just think the fence gives an illusion of safety for us. I don't think there's any place in Miami that's any safer than here. They're going to rob rich people sooner than they're going to rob middle-income people," she reasons.

"To me [the fence] was just the norm for Miami," says Lacy Betton, a black Chicago native and military readiness analyst, who moved to the area from Panama along with the U.S. Southern Command (Southcom) in 1997. "When you look in the newspaper and you see 'gated community,' it's like a plus in the real estate market."

Jim Wilets is anti-fence. "It kind of defeats the purpose. It's very offensive to the [outside] neighborhood. We're an integrated community. But we're an island," he states.

A happy island nonetheless, whose inhabitants know they are sitting on houses they hope will rapidly accrue in value. "I think it was a great find," raves Shaw. "I mean where can you buy a new home, where you don't have to come in and demolish it and do the roofs over, for $115,000 in south Coconut Grove? You can't find a new home here for this price. These houses are three bedrooms, three baths, which means the resale will be excellent."

Resales are exactly the result Millicent Bain predicted. "People bought them for investments, and when [their value] goes up in the market, they're going to turn them over and make their money," she says.

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