Riffraff Bugaboo

Lakes by the Bay Community Council members had a decision to make on September 5. Should they support the proposed placement of a construction dump near their 1200-house subdivision or oppose the project and risk having low-income housing built on the 60-acre site?

The council voted unanimously: Bring on the junk.
"The residents will never see it; they'll never know it's there," insists Lakes council chairman Curtis Rist, referring to the proposed dump, which he calls a "buffer" between Lakes homes and the South Dade Sewage Treatment Plant and the South Dade landfill known as Mt. Trashmore.

"We've gotten pretty good at knowing what the sewer smells like and what Mt. Trashmore smells like, but the new landfill won't smell," adds Rist. "The only way the homeowners will realize it's there will be by the noise and traffic of dump trucks."

The new dump at SW 232nd Street and 97th Avenue will invite concrete rubble; steel, aluminum, and wood scraps; dirt; and other nontoxic discards. On September 18 the county approved plans for the dump.

Lakes dwellers don't want this stuff, Rist explains, but it's simply the best choice to the perceived alternative: "We don't want low-income housing here, period."

The average home in Lakes by the Bay -- whose northern and southern boundaries are 212th and 232nd streets-- is assessed at $130,000. Low-income houses of $70,000 to $80,000, Rist argues, would depreciate neighboring property values. Lower-income families also bring down the commercial viability of a community, Rist claims, deflecting new businesses like TGIF Friday's and Bennigan's, which seek upscale areas.

And then there's the great suburban bugaboo: "The reaction people have here is that somebody may pose a threat," intimates Rist, age 35. "Crime is an ongoing fear."

Rist says the homeowners' NIMBY attitude "raised its ugly head" during the mushrooming of rental properties and government-subsidized housing, much of it below SW 152nd Street, after Hurricane Andrew.

"I think it may have been a good idea -- I'll probably get shot for saying this -- to take people from disadvantaged backgrounds and place them in middle-class neighborhoods in the hopes that those middle-class values would rub off on them," says Rist, who moved to the neighborhood in 1988. "It's a big social experiment, but I don't think it's working. The fear is that this experiment will continue a quarter-mile away, so we're saying no low-income housing."

The Lakes council's view is short-sighted and unfortunate, according to housing and homeless advocate Donna MacDonald. She says community councils should be active in helping to form economically and ethnically diverse neighborhoods rather than intransigently oppose the concept of low-income housing.

MacDonald says the fears of crime associated with low-income housing are based on stereotypes of projects in big northern cities. She argues that the dearth of affordable housing -- currently 38,000 single-family units short in Dade County -- perpetuates many societal ills, such as homelessness and the breakup of families.

"People who live in low-income homes are hard-working people who don't make that much money and who do the work in our society that nobody else wants to do," MacDonald says. "They deserve decent, affordable housing."

Even nearby residents who have ecological concerns about the proposed landfill say they would prefer rubble to low-income housing in the southwest corner of Lakes by the Bay. Covered with thickets of Brazilian pepper trees, the land has been undeveloped since Dowcorp Investment Group, Inc., acquired it in May 1990. The only other attempt to develop that property came shortly after Hurricane Andrew, when Dowcorp raised a sign advertising single-family homes with no-down payment. That offer was withdrawn.

The vociferous opposition by Lakes residents to Dowcorp's plan to put inexpensive housing on that property played no part in the plan's being shelved, says company spokesman Michael Radell. A landfill, Dowcorp concluded, would be more profitable than housing on that site, and it would be temporary. After perhaps ten years, Radell explains, the land could be covered and then converted to agriculture or developed for housing.

Radell met with the Lakes council to try to assuage any concerns, and ultimately accepted several of the council's suggestions. Dowcorp agreed to limit the height of the berm to sixteen feet, police the roadway for illegal dumping, and landscape the surrounding area with Fakahatchee grass and royal poincianas.

"Yeah, the top of the landfill will have a big red rim around it, like a crown," Rist says optimistically.

MacDonald is not impressed. Well-constructed affordable housing, she counters, would improve more than the appearance of the community. "It adds dignity to people's lives.


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