Yuppies in the Hood
Harvey and Alice are out for a late-evening walk in front of their three-bedroom house in a quiet, fenced-in, botanical-garden-of-a-neighborhood in Coconut Grove. Each has a four-foot, blue nylon strip attached to its neck. Both are off-white American Eskimo hounds. At the other end of Harvey's leash is Luis Font, a 35-year-old immigration lawyer. At the terminus of Alice's tether is Jim Wilets, a 39-year-old law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale.
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.
The swath of land changed to white hands again in 1922, when Frow and Stirrup sold most of the land that is now St. Hugh Oaks to Hugh M. Matheson, whose family had been buying up large chunks of Dade County for ten years. The Catholic Church got it next, in 1953, when Matheson's wife donated the acreage to the Diocese of St. Augustine. In 1957 the diocese built the St. Augustine Mission School for the Black, a trade school, on the property.
In November 1958 the Diocese of St. Augustine transferred the land to the newly created Miami Diocese. St. Hugh parish assumed control of the red-brick and concrete school and integrated it as a private Catholic grade school.
The school bells were still ringing in July 1981 when Archbishop Edward McCarthy sold the property for $400,000 to the Miami Equity Corporation, which was run by two Cuban-American businessmen: president Ramon Milian-Rodriguez and secretary Anthony G. Marina.
The company had completed a townhouse project three blocks east of the St. Hugh property in 1982 and wanted to build 30 or 40 luxury townhouses on the schoolyard. To design the new structures, Marina hired Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Andres Duany, who had recently left the highly acclaimed Arquitectonica firm and set up their own company, DPZ.
But the project was soon bogged down.
Black Grovites complained to city officials, arguing that single-family homes would be more appropriate for their historic neighborhood. So Marina and his architects scaled down the plan, agreeing in May 1981 to limit the development to 30 houses. In 1982 St. Hugh parish abandoned the schoolhouse as planned. Students and teachers moved four blocks east to classrooms in a new building next to the St. Hugh Catholic Church on Main Highway.
This tedious lead-in to St. Hugh Oaks took a shocking detour in 1983, when federal agents arrested Milian-Rodriguez after seizing $5.4 million in cash and 60 pounds of cocaine from his Lear jet. Prosecutors linked him to the Medellin cartel and in 1985 a judge sentenced him to 43 years in prison for money laundering.
Marina, who was not charged in the case, became president of Miami Equity and pressed on with the St. Hugh Oaks project. In October 1985, while Biscayne Bank moved to foreclose on one of Miami Equity's mortgages, Marina also became president of a new company, St. Hugh Oaks Corporation. Both concerns were located at the same Mary Street address in Coconut Grove. The next month, Miami Equity sold the three-acre tract to St. Hugh Oaks Corporation for $362,000, according to city and state records.
Marina cashed in the following year. In July 1986 private appraiser Leonard Bisz valued the property at a whopping $1.1 million; two months later city commissioners saw fit to pay Marina that amount. A young mayor named Xavier Suarez signed the resolution, approving the purchase. State records show that Miami Equity went out of business in 1987.
Why the property value tripled remains a mystery. Bisz is "under a nurse's care and can't come to the phone," said a man before hanging up when New Times called the appraiser's Coral Gables residence. The Miami Herald wrote nary a word about the decision. Jeff Hepburn, the only housing employee involved in the project who is still on staff, can't explain the inflation either. "That's news to me. Usually it doesn't shoot up that much, even when it is rezoned. But I wasn't involved in the transaction," he says.
Marina, currently president of Firepak, a fire extinguisher company in Medley, declines to reveal his profit from the deal. "You'd have to figure out how much interest was at the time and how many years [the land] was owned. You'd have to do some research," he instructs. But how much did he make? "As I said, you'd have to do some research," he repeats.
Marina denies the $362,000 sale from Miami Equity to St. Hugh Oaks Corporation took place. "It was always owned by the same company," he insists. Miami Equity? "Right." Then he excused himself and hung up the phone.
The commissioners seemed to have magnanimous intentions. In addition to handsomely compensating Marina, they also promised a shot at the good life to the mostly black, low-income dwellers of Coconut Grove. Three-bedroom houses would be built and sold for as low as $65,000. A city bond fund designated for housing would be used to pay for the project. In 1986 commissioners hired DPZ and a year later, construction workers demolished the schoolhouse.
During the next five years, commissioners and neighborhood groups haggled over St. Hugh Oaks's identity, revisiting the townhouse versus single-family homes dispute and other issues. In April 1991, city officials, a black Grove neighborhood group, and the mostly white Coconut Grove Civic Club, agreed to a 30-home plan. But a splinter group of civic club members residing in the south Grove was up in arms, fearing their property values would plummet. Anglo resident Sky Smith (president of the Coconut Grove Chamber of Commerce) expressed concerns that St. Hugh Oaks would "lend itself to a ghettolike atmosphere" and increase traffic, according to the Herald.
Finally, after a rash of hot-tempered city hall meetings, leaders of the new South Grove Homeowners Association, including Smith and Lou Wechsler, grudgingly accepted a 23-house plan. "We're ready to bite the bullet," Wechsler told the Herald in May 1991.
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.
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.
That was Lourdes Luaces's plan. A native of CamagYey, Cuba, who came to Miami with her parents 25 years ago, Luaces is a 30-year-old architect who drives a Saab and owns two other properties -- a condo and a duplex -- in other parts of the Grove. "I really saw it as an investment at first, but now I really love living here," chirps Luaces. "I love being here. I love my house. The oak trees are amazing. The vegetation is really nice." The lithe former high school volleyball player was so enthusiastic about St. Hugh Oaks that she wanted to buy two of the houses, but commissioners told her she couldn't. So she persuaded her two cousins to purchase in 1998. "If I would have had my real estate license when I bought this house, I would have tried to sell them to all my cousins," she joshes.
So far Valerie Davis-Bailey, a black insurance agent originally from Brooklyn, is the only owner trying to resell. Davis-Bailey, who drives a Jaguar and owns a condominium in Kendall, put her house on the market this past fall, about a year and a half after purchasing. The cost: $155,000. If she gets her asking price, that would leave her with a nice $40,000 nest egg. An Anglo owner, Salvatore Volpe, is the only absentee landlord in St. Hugh Oaks. He rents his property to a black man who lives there with one child.
Concerned about neighborhood cohesion, Wilets and Luis proposed a rule to require owners to reside there for a year before reselling or leasing. But city attorneys thought that would be illegal, Wilets says. "The last thing we wanted was speculators," he sighs. "We wanted a community."
The community is cohering despite occasional spats over parking spots or hedge types. "It's like a postmodern, integrated Main Street U.S.A. in the middle of the city," Wilets observes. "I'm just glad this neighborhood is integrated. It's sad that it's not integrated with the rest of the community.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.