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West Grove Residents Camp in Vacant Lot to Protest Rising Rents, Deteriorating Buildings

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Donna Thomas-Jones fears she'll soon be squeezed out of the neighborhood she has called home for most of her life. For years, she's watched rent climb and apartment buildings crumble in the West Grove, forcing out families who have lived for generations in this historically Bahamian enclave.

Recently, a number of her neighbors have been handed eviction notices after landlords allowed their buildings to fall into disrepair. Many have been given just days to find housing in one of the nation's toughest markets.

"My daughter's dream," Thomas-Jones says, "is that they don't sell [my building] until she's through college and can take care of me."

On Tuesday, she stood on Grand Avenue holding a "Honk for Housing" sign, part of a group of protesters who say the West Grove's housing situation has reached a crisis point. Organized by the new advocacy group Housing for All, the protest began last Friday when residents set up tents in a vacant lot and camped out to demand better housing options.

They were kicked off the property by the owner over the weekend and moved to another spot. By this past Monday, they'd been told to leave that location too. But Thaddeus Scott, one of the organizers, says the protest won't go away. Residents want a solution, one that doesn't involve picking up and leaving the Grove.

"The people want to live in this community, and they have a right to live in this community," he says. "They don't want to leave a community they've always lived in."

Scott, whose family has lived in the West Grove since the '40s, worries the neighborhood's history will be washed away if its residents are forced to leave. Established in the late 1800s, it was home to Miami's early black Bahamian settlers, many of whom worked in the now-defunct nearby Peacock Inn. One of the city's first black millionaires, E.W.F. Stirrup, built many of the homes in which they lived.

"This is the community that started it all," Scott says.

But it's been in decline for years. Some apartment buildings were knocked down, leaving lots that have sat empty for years. Others are falling apart, with roofs collapsing and raw sewage flowing by. Residents have stayed because the rent, ranging from about $400 to $800 per month, is about all they can afford.

The City of Miami is now suing owners of 12 West Grove properties that have fallen into disrepair. The lawsuit is an effort to make the owners pay to relocate residents to clean, safe, and affordable homes. City Commissioner Ken Russell joined the protesters over the weekend and slept in a tent.

Thomas-Jones, who has been unable to work since suffering a stroke four years ago, says her own rent is getting high at $750 a month. It takes just "one ounce of compassion" to care about what's happening in the West Grove, she says. She hopes the protest will help.

"I believe somebody has to stand up," she says.

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