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Looking for affordable homes in Miami, buyers turn to fabled if troubled Liberty City

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Where inside the city of Miami can you find a well-located, brand-new four-bedroom home, with central air and porcelain-tile floors, for the relative bargain price of $250,000? Or a totally renovated three-bedroom house with a nice yard and an old oak tree for $255,000?

There is a central neighborhood within Miami city boundaries, served by Metrorail and with easy access to expressways, that’s a short hop to downtown and hot spots like Wynwood — and where buying a decent house won’t break the bank.

Miami’s Liberty City, also known as Model City, is a fabled African-American neighborhood that has indisputably seen better days. But it’s on the early part of an upswing, thanks to its ultra-convenient location and an extensive stock of solidly built single-family homes dating to the post-World War II period. At its peak, Liberty City attracted thousands of black professionals and middle-class teachers, nurses and government workers.

Those residential streets remained largely stable even as Liberty City went into a well-documented decline in the 1970s and 1980s that saw its commercial corridors and crowded “concrete monster” apartment buildings turn to blight, civil disorder and crime. Now, amid generational turnover, and a steady trickle of foreclosures, many of the single-family homes are going up for sale — and luring investors and homebuyers looking for relative bargains as home prices across Miami-Dade soar.

While that’s given rise to fears of gentrification, most asking prices remain well below the $360,000 county median. That’s making the neighborhood newly attractive to buyers unable to afford a close-in home anywhere else. They include young black families as well as Hispanics who have been priced out of nearby Hialeah — a once-affordable city where home prices are today among the fastest-rising in the county.

One of those who have moved in is Miami city commissioner Keon Hardemon, who grew up in Liberty City and has lately returned to live in the neighborhood with his family.

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Real estate agent and developer Ivan Rabinovich shows a newly renovated home in the Liberty City/Model City neighborhood that’s selling for $255,000. CHARLES TRAINOR JR. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Government is also investing heavily in neighborhood improvements. The long-troubled Liberty Square public housing project, which sits at the heart of the neighborhood between Northwest 62nd and 67th streets and 12th and 15th avenues, is undergoing a massive redevelopment in a joint venture by Miami-Dade and an arm of developers The Related Group. The project, the first phase of which was recently inaugurated, is bringing brand-new market-rate and workforce housing to the site, along with traditional public housing units where residents pay rent on a sliding scale.

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The idea is to create a mixed-income community that attracts higher-income residents to bolster the local economy and support new retail businesses, while not displacing lower-income residents. Liberty City has no formal boundaries, but it stretches from State Road 112 north to Northwest 79th Street between Interstate 95 and, depending on who you ask, as far west as Northwest 27th Avenue. It’s about six miles from Liberty Square to downtown Miami on I-95.

“I think this area is due for a big change,” said real-estate broker Ivan Rabinovich, who has been rehabbing homes and building new ones in Liberty City for a few years. He cites the Liberty Square redevelopment on Northwest 62nd Street as potentially transformative for the immediate surroundings. “I’ve been selling super-quick in this pocket.”

And by that, he means demand is such that his houses are often selling within three to four days of being listed.

Rabinovich, who is affiliated with Keller Williams Realty, is selling that $250,000 new four-bedroom, two-bath house across the street from football powerhouse Miami Northwester Senior High. The 1,460-square-foot home, on a 5,450-square-foot lot, is not yet finished but already under contract.

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A nearly finished, new four-bedroom, two-bath house across the street from Northwestern Senior High School in the Liberty City or Model City neighborhood is selling for $250,000. CHARLES TRAINOR JR. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

He also renovated the three-bedroom, two-bath house in the neighborhood that’s almost done and going for $255,000. Located on a tidy block of mostly well-kept homes, on a 5,600-square-foot lot, the 1955 house now boasts a new shingle roof, all new utilities, new bathrooms and an open-plan kitchen. The floors are porcelain tile and the appliances finished in stainless steel. When a reporter visited recently, the house had been on the market for seven days and received a dozen showings, he said.

Many homes in Liberty City were built small, and going small for buyers means an even better price. Rabinovich has one home under renovation that’s just under 1,000 square feet but still fits three bedrooms and a bath and feels bright and comfortable. The lot is 5,400 square feet. He’s asking $219,000.

“It’s not going to win an Architectural Digest award, but we try to make it nice, make it inviting,” Rabinovich said. “I see the affordable range as something the market was asking for. There’s always going to be a demand. And I feel this is serving a need.”

According to real-estate website Movoto.com, there are 119 homes for sale in Model City, a name given to the neighborhood in the 1960s under a federal urban-renewal program. That includes numerous renovated or new homes in the mid-$200,000 range and some at even lower prices.

But Rabinovich notes that some of the latter are “distressed” properties requiring major renovation while others, especially wood-frame homes, are tear-downs. The neighborhood also has many vacant lots, though many are quirky sizes or smaller than the zoning code’s minimum allowable size for construction.

According to real estate website Zillow, asking prices for homes in Liberty City rose 24 percent in the past year. Rabinovich said he expects them to continue “creeping up,” but not to jump significantly because they appear to have reached a plateau.

Almost certainly, that’s at least in part because of the neighborhood’s reputation and some clear disadvantages, at least for buyers coming from outside Liberty City. The commercial areas are largely decimated and look ragged. Crime is spread unevenly, but remains alarmingly high in some sections, where it’s associated with the drug trade.

Rabinovich says most of his buyers are aware of the area’s issues, but have made the calculation that the home prices, quality and location outweigh those.

“Some people are just looking for affordable homes and to be in a central location,” he said. “We’re right in the urban core. If you want something nice at this price, it’s either here, or Homestead.”

MODEL CITY/LIBERTY CITY

The neighborhood has no formally defined boundaries. The following data corresponds to portions within City of Miami boundaries and varies by ZIP code.

Population: 22,749

Median household income: $26,600 (2016)

Median age: 35.1

Main intersection: Northwest 62nd Avenue and Northwest Seventh Street

Average School Grade: B to C

Drive time to downtown Miami: 15 minutes

Personal Crime Index: 385 to 397

Property Crime Index: 172 to 187

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