After surviving 49 years in the wash-rinse-repeat housing market that has ravaged his neighborhood, Andrew Hall can’t bring himself to leave the West Grove.
The Thomas Avenue apartment building where the handyman grew up was demolished long ago by developers, and friends are slowly leaving town, priced out by the market. But Hall and his neighbors are reluctant to pick up and go — even though the crumbling Grand Avenue building where they live has been condemned.
“This is a step away from being homeless,” Hall said while walking through the rubble of his second-floor apartment in the South Winds complex on Hibiscus Street. “They’re slowly squeezing us out.”
Warnings of the historically black West Grove’s demise have floated around for decades, growing louder as real estate speculators gobbled up homes and properties in a depressed neighborhood that bridges tiny Coral Gables and Coconut Grove. On Grand Avenue, the center of a community first settled in the late 1800s by Bahamian workers, various failed plans for redevelopment have threatened for years to knock down what housing hasn’t already been razed.
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But this time, things feel different.
They’re slowly squeezing us out.
Andrew Hall, South Winds tenant
The ongoing evictions at the 28-unit South Winds complex are expected to be the first of dozens in the coming year as a dysfunctional group of investors pushes to finally sell a collection of six Grand Avenue acres, including nearly 200 dirt-cheap rental units that have become a massive legal and political headache. Some tenants say they were told months ago that they’ll need to be out soon — creating expectations that hundreds will be displaced in the coming months from a community clinging to the last pieces of its heritage.
“Our jobs are here. Our kids go to school here,” said Renescha Coats, among a handful of Hall’s neighbors fighting their evictions in court. “It’s not that we want to stay here. Where else are we going to go?”
The battle over South Winds — including a lawsuit filed by city hall against the landlord — could be among the last confrontations in a tired war against gentrification in the West Grove. Investors, many of whom are land-banking vacant lots amid shotgun shacks and pastel-colored Mediterranean houses, now own a bulk of the property in the neighborhood. Nearly one in three people in the neighborhood of about 2,500 is unemployed, according to a 2013 city study.
New public housing complexes have opened in the past few years, but Grand Avenue’s hard-scrabble apartment buildings are the unofficial affordable stock for the community. Though some tenants say the buildings are falling apart and drug-plagued, their disappearance — almost certainly a matter of when, not if — will likely drop the bottom out of the housing stock.
That expectation has sparked anger and resignation along the brick-lined street that runs from CocoWalk to Dixie Highway, where most the men and women passing on the street on foot and bicycle still know each other by name.
[The city] forced me into it. They’re the ones who forced me into evicting those first 28.
Julio C. Marrero, landlord
Hall, who said he takes the county bus from his new apartment in Overtown to Grand Avenue most mornings just to spend time in his community, said gentrification has hit the neighborhood “like cancer.” Across the street from South Winds, not far from a stained island-themed mural that reads “gone but not forgotten,” several tenants told the Miami Herald they’ve stopped paying rent in order to save money after a property manager told them in October that they’ll be out soon.
One woman who told a reporter to call her Joy said she’s lived on Grand Avenue since 1992, back when then-landlord Walter Green charged just $150 a month. Even then, Green, who helped create the annual Bahamian Goombay festival and form Grovites United to Survive, warned his tenants that real estate prices would eventually push them out.
“He always told us, ‘You guys are going to have to move,’” she said. “Now it’s here at us. It finally got to us.”
There appears to be a citywide and countywide policy and practice of under-enforcement of housing codes. A prototypical example of that is what we’re seeing on Hibiscus Street.
Anthony Alfieri, UM professor
Green still owned the building when he died in 1999. But his estate sold it and another Grand Avenue parcel in 2004 to Andros Development Corp., one of multiple companies formed by investors Julio C. Marrero, Phillip Muskat and Orlando Benitez Jr. to purchase dozens of properties on Grand.
Court records show they’re hoping to sell their collection to Miami developer Terra Group for $35 million. The trio have kept rents around a paltry $400 a month since their purchase, but have also spent the last seven years wrangling in state and federal court over the land, and over money and assets tied up by a lending company that filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
Reached by phone, Marrero said the only building being completely emptied is South Winds, and all other evictions are because of non-payment of rent. Some of his tenants refer to him as a “slum lord,” but he and his partners have been responsible owners, he said, despite their vast legal disputes.
Problems only became extreme this year, he said, after the city forced his hand by sending the building to its unsafe structures board and ordering the building demolished when litigation locked up money needed to repair the roof at South Winds.
“In reality, [the city] forced me into it. They’re the ones who forced me into evicting those first 28. They filed the notice,” he said, adding that the buildings were kept up as best they could be while generating obscenely cheap rents. “They’re probably three to four times less than what you’d pay elsewhere.”
Terra Group hasn’t discussed its plans for the buildings should it buy them. But the apartment complexes will not be part of its long-term plans, nor is it likely rents will stay anywhere in the vicinity of $400.
In order to address and prevent the sudden displacement of hundreds, the city filed a lawsuit in July that attempts to force Marrero and his partners to repair their buildings and bring them up to code, and relocate their tenants. The commission has allocated $306,000 for “housing relocation” services, and Coconut Grove-area commissioner Ken Russell camped out recently with protesters and ate Thanksgiving dinner with the families still living among the boarded-up units at South Winds.
Russell, who says Marrero blaming the city completely ignores that he allowed his building to become a slum unsafe to live in, hopes the lawsuit and pending sale to Terra Group can be used as leverage to set aside funds for low-income housing in the area.
But some say that’s too little from a government that should have done more to enforce Miami-Dade’s minimum housing standards and regulate the real estate market in a neighborhood primed for redevelopment. Anthony Alfieri, director of the University of Miami’s Center for Ethics and Public Service, which studies social justice issues in the West Grove, said research shows the lax enforcement of those laws is stressing the county’s low-income housing stock and ultimately pushing residents of condemned buildings out of the urban core and into racially isolated suburbs.
“There appears to be a citywide and countywide policy and practice of under-enforcement of housing codes,” Alfieri said. “A prototypical example of that is what we’re seeing on Hibiscus Street.”
But Grand Avenue’s demise is not predetermined. Street protests erupted last month, and for several days a group called Housing for All staged camp-outs in vacant lots. Waving signs, they marched recently down Grand Avenue to City Hall to demand action. Coats, who is raising four young children at South Winds, marched with them.
With the help of Legal Services of Greater Miami, she’s fighting to either force Marrero and his partners to rehab South Winds, where she said regular sewage leaks prevent her children and her dog from playing in the courtyard, or ensure that she’s relocated within the West Grove.
“I’m trying to get them to do what’s right,” she said. “Now it’s just a waiting game.”