The Bitterness of Sugar Hill

This is the story of a runaway money train called Sugar Hill. Fueled by your federal tax dollars, it has gobbled cash -- almost three million dollars -- on a seemingly unsupervised six-year journey of outrageous waste and incompetence. To date all it has produced are unfinished buildings, shoddy workmanship, and unanswered questions.

The wheels began to turn in 1993, motivated by ideals that are beyond reproach. In that year the nonprofit Economic Opportunity Family Health Center (FHC) submitted a proposal to create 26 apartments to house AIDS patients and their families. The agency signed a contract to purchase five buildings, one of which was to be demolished. The remaining four were to be redesigned and rehabilitated -- a task that proved more formidable than starting from scratch.

The project, called Sugar Hill, would cater to the neediest AIDS sufferers, those in the final stages of the disease. The dying would come largely from the ranks of impoverished minorities. FHC decided to locate the project in one of the worst parts of the inner city, smack in the middle of apartments also called Sugar Hill. It branded the area around NW Fourteenth Place and NW 71st Street a "transitional neighborhood" and sold the development as the first step in an effort to transform the surrounding squalor.

But rather than raising up the area, the Sugar Hill project began to sink to the level of decay and inertia around it -- a victim of neglect, indifference, and ineptitude. Its history is almost comical: It failed to meet federal noise guidelines and its first contractor went bankrupt; cost overruns became the norm while builders ignored schedules and workers installed shoddy materials; one of the buildings burned down, and overpriced appliances and fixtures were looted. Today not one AIDS patient lives at Sugar Hill, a site that rusts and rots while waiting for yet another infusion of cash to complete it.

From the beginning Sugar Hill carried a costly price tag. FHC requested $2.35 million in federal grant money. Funds would come from the coffers of a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program specifically designed to help local governments house AIDS patients. Usually these funds are earmarked for rental assistance and utility bills, but occasionally the money is used for permanent housing. Allocation and administration of the cash fell to Miami-Dade County and the City of Miami in a 51/49 split. In its proposal FHC offered its experience and reputation as important reasons why it should receive the grant. As proof of its expertise, the proposal included the résumé of one of the county's most distinguished women, the president and chief executive officer of FHC at the time, Jessie Trice.

Trice, who includes among her many honors an appointment to a White House conference on children and a section of NW 22nd Avenue that carries her name, promised to take the slum housing and transform it into an enclosed compound that would include new apartments, a spacious community center, and grassy areas. The project priced out at an expensive $106 per square foot of building space. (Private construction for a three-bedroom townhouse currently averages around $66 per square foot.) Nonetheless the grant was quickly approved by the city and the county commissions. The city commission agreed to disburse $1.1 million on December 16, 1993, and a little more than one month later the county commission voted to give an additional $1.2 million.

On March 10, 1994, FHC hired the man whose signature became the passkey to the Sugar Hill money box, architect Joseph Middlebrooks of Joseph Middlebrooks and Associates, Inc. He continues on the project today. His job: to help hire the contractor, draw the plans, and supervise construction. The architect needed to sign on the dotted line certifying that all work was completed satisfactorily before construction bills could be paid. Middlebrooks declined to respond to more than ten phone calls to his office, as well as to faxed questions, for this story. He was not alone. Despite more than a dozen attempts and a request by city officials that they speak with the media, FHC employees as well as the project's last general contractor refused to comment or account for how they spent the public's money.

FHC's site choice had obvious and inherent difficulties. Almost a year after signing the contract to buy the Sugar Hill property, the agency received a report from the sound-engineering firm Archicoustics. It appears the agency failed to adequately take into account the railroad tracks that abut the property. The noise level ran afoul of HUD guidelines for housing. Archicoustics concluded the building closest to the tracks would never meet minimum noise standards, even if substantial barriers were built, so FHC decided to make that building the community center. The other structures could receive a poor HUD sound rating of "normally unacceptable" if plans were modified according to Archicoustics' recommendations. They were.