The Bitterness of Sugar Hill

The plan was to turn inner-city housing into an AIDS refuge. The reality is a shocking waste of money and charity.

Reinaldo A. Torrente is listed as the chief officer of the T&R Group in records of the Florida Division of Corporations. The address listed on the state document is for a modest, older house near the Palmetto Expressway in Kendall. It is not an appliance store, or even an office. When contacted on the phone Torrente refused to discuss the bill or any details about his business.

On several occasions thieves broke into Sugar Hill and stole a number of the new appliances. (Sterling and FHC would not comment on how many were actually taken.) According to a security guard at the site, the remaining appliances have been stored onsite in a semitrailer, with its doors welded shut to prevent further theft. It is anyone's guess how they will work when they are pulled from this homemade oven and finally installed.

Today only a security guard stands behind Sugar Hill's locked gates
Today only a security guard stands behind Sugar Hill's locked gates

The blame for the boondoggle is spread far and wide, but one name stands out: Joseph Middlebrooks.

"Once you hit construction, the architect takes over," remarks FHC consultant John Hazelroth.

The architect was supposed to compensate for FHC's lack of construction experience. As the designated onsite professional, Middlebrooks was entrusted to closely guard the interests of the agency, HUD, and taxpayers by monitoring construction and payments.

He helped choose Tecina and agreed to pay the company $1,439,680, even as it went bankrupt and the site fell into a shambles. When Sterling won the contract for $750,050, Middlebrooks signed the change orders that increased the sum to $869,561. He also certified the appliance invoice from the T&R Group.

It was his job to walk the site, making certain that construction was sound, on time, and within budget. Yet until the city stopped payment on a $6893 check for routine architectural-site supervision made out to his firm, records reflect that he never tried to put the brakes on the fiasco.

He signed certificates for payment, and the money continued to move. Today Middlebrooks is still signing, according to FHC, but he refuses to talk about his role.

According to his contract, Middlebrooks was to be paid a flat fee equal to seven percent of the construction budget for delivering the architectural drawings for the project. Additionally he charged various hourly rates for himself and his employees for site supervision.

Based on a June 1994 budget, the cost for his site supervision for the project was expected to total about $27,000. An examination of the architect's invoices in city and county files clearly shows he billed a great deal more than that. For example in just one three-and-a-half month period in 1998, he charged FHC $12,024 for construction administration. Middlebrooks and FHC refused to comment on how much the architect has received to date.

Today Sugar Hill is inching toward completion. A new construction contract is being put out for bid by FHC, according to Sharlene Adelman, a city housing-program manager. The new contractor will be expected to finish the apartments in 90 days from the onset of work, but Adelman acknowledges that the community building might take a little longer. At this point city officials have no contingency plan if this contract also fails to get the job done.

But even if tenants move in, they might not be happy with what they find: Closet doors that fall off their hinges, bathroom sinks beneath windows, bubbled vinyl flooring, and flimsy plastic kitchen piping are only some of the shoddy materials and workmanship that await them.

It didn't have to be this way. Sugar Hill didn't have to be an exorbitant waste of time and money out of the small pot of goodwill expended on the inner city.

North of Sugar Hill, on the edge of a slightly kitschy but standard South Florida-style manmade lake, a private developer is building and selling new homes and townhouses on pleasant, full-size lots that back up to the water's edge.

The developer's sales pitch is simple: "Everything's included."

"Everything" includes all the gizmos and polish that typically comprise the good old no-fooling-around American middle-class standard of living: the marble sills and saddles, the choice of tiles and carpets, the dishwashers, good-quality appliances, garbage disposals, and alarm systems. The homes must be nice, or the developer won't be able to sell them, and the developer and his partners will go broke.

The developer's costs also typically include the interest paid on high-priced construction loans, on an advertising budget, on commissions, and on the wages of a sales force. And more.

These three-bedroom, two-bath homes sell for $91,000. The three-bedroom, two-bath townhouses sell for $78,000, and offer more than 1100 square feet of living space.

The small Sugar Hill apartments cost far more than the privately built houses, which have better workmanship and higher quality fixtures.

And then there are the intangibles the private developer doesn't offer: the gunfire and street noise that can be the nighttime soundtrack of Liberty City. Instead, some new homeowners say, in the evening they listen to the water lapping at the edge of their back yards.

And of course, there is no train.

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