When you think “gentrification,” Barbara Shaheen’s story is not what you’re picturing, guaranteed.
She isn’t poor, black or Latino, or being pushed out of an affordable inner-city neighborhood turned “cool” by mostly white hipsters with their expensive juice bars, galleries, and heavier wallets made out of recycled ocean plastic and organic fibers.
In fact, Shaheen is white and grew up lounging on one of the most exclusive private beaches in South Florida. The town where she has lived for 70 years prohibits juice bars — or any other commercial enterprise. And her family’s waterfront property is currently worth $3.6 million, give or take.
Still, Shaheen and some other long-term residents of Golden Beach say they aren’t welcome in the small city anymore. Some left when they couldn’t afford their homes, others after their neighbors left, and Golden Beach lost its “small town” feel. Still others, like Shaheen, decided to stay despite the changes. But that hasn’t been easy.
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Shaheen says she’s the victim of a decades-long effort by city officials to use “bogus code violations” to push her out of her waterfront home to make way for something bigger, newer and a lot more expensive.
“I guess they just didn’t want older homes or older residents,” said Shaheen, who is now in her 70s and whose family has lived in Golden Beach since 1944. “I don’t fit the vision of Golden Beach.”
Today, Golden Beach is one of the most affluent municipalities in South Florida. Made up entirely of single-family residences, the town has some of the highest home values in Miami-Dade. (It’s second only to Indian Creek, one of the wealthiest enclaves in the entire nation.)
“Golden Beach is known, and we want to be known, as a lovely jewel in an exquisite setting,” said town manager Alexander Diaz.
Tucked into less than a square mile of land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway at the northern end of Miami-Dade County, Golden Beach has always attracted the rich and famous, including Ricky Martin, Sammy Sosa, Tommy Hilfiger, and Richard Wurman, creator of Ted Talks. Eric Clapton named his album “461 Ocean Boulevard” after his former Golden Beach vacation home.
But recently, the town got even ritzier. Last year, its 344 estates were worth over $1 billion, up from $633 million in 2012. While all of South Florida has experienced an uptick in property values during that time, the increase in Golden Beach is 20 percentage points higher than Miami-Dade County as a whole.
“Taxes there are very high now. It’s very expensive to continue to live there,” said Cathy Szabo, who lived in Golden Beach for 30 years before selling her house on Golden Beach Drive four years ago. “My mother had lived in a different house there too. I moved out shortly after she did.”
The Szabos weren’t the only ones to leave. According to city officials, wealthy families from Venezuela, Brazil and Russia have replaced some of the previous generation of residents, mostly Northeasterners fleeing the winter or vacationing in South Florida. The number of children in town spiked from sixty to almost 400.
“It has become a different community,” said June Krogoll, Shaheen’s former neighbor, who lived in Golden Beach for more than 70 years before selling her home last year for over $2.1 million. “It’s the same old story of new people who come in and they stick to themselves and they have a nice community too, but it has changed and I no longer feel comfortable going to the beach.”
Krogoll said she doesn’t fit in, in part because many new residents “don’t speak English.” She listed a handful of other people she knew who also sold their Golden Beach homes when buyers with deep pockets came to their doors. But not everyone thinks that’s a bad thing.
“Definitely the neighborhood has changed,” said five-term Golden Beach Mayor Glenn Singer.
Over the past ten years, the Singer/Diaz administration oversaw a successful $48 million infrastructure project that included building new bridges, installing a new storm water system, burying all utilities, and increasing the number of parks in town.
“We want to make it like no other community and the envy of everywhere else in South Florida,” said Singer.
Buyers have poured into Golden Beach, tearing down the old homes, building new, and flipping to the highest bidder. Nearly half of all Golden Beach homes have been sold since 2010, according to an analysis of property records. The assessed values nearly doubled since the sale. Twenty-six were torn down and totally rebuilt, increasing their value by another 25 percent. Almost all of the rebuilt houses were along the Intracoastal near the Shaheen and Krogoll homes.
Singer said while the town never intended to drive former residents out, the increase in property values has had “unfortunate” side effects.
“Golden Beach has become more expensive and some of the older time residents feel pushed out,” said Singer. “But not by our doing.”
Still, some residents like Shaheen have accused the mayor and manager of targeting older homes with excessive code violations. Some think it’s an effort to get them to leave so their old homes can be torn down, rebuilt and sold for a higher price.
“I think the town manager and the council were anxious to get more revenue for the properties,” said Krogoll. But she also said she was happy she had moved away from the “political madness” in the city.
Several residents told the Miami Herald a barrage of code violations for things like dead grass, open garage doors, or flaking paint made it hard to stay in Golden Beach. A few said it was better to cut their losses and sell while the property values were high.
“We couldn’t take the persecution,” said one former resident who preferred not to be named due to the harassment she said she experienced by the city. She’s 90 and sold her house a few years ago.
But all of the former residents interviewed by the Herald seem to agree: No one has had it worse than Shaheen.
“I don’t know how Barbara survived it,” the former resident said. “I really thought she was going to have a heart attack from the persecution.”
Over more than two decades, Shaheen has fought off code violations representing at least $1 million in fines as well as one attempted foreclosure by the city government. She said as the neighborhood changed, the city started to see her old home as an eyesore and began issuing code violation citations in an effort to get her family to sell the home.
“They were following my mother down the beach to give the code enforcement,” Shaheen said. She feels her late mother’s poor health was exacerbated by the harassment. “I mean they knocked on her bedroom window to deliver the things.”
She had hoped to pass the family home on to her daughter some day. Now, Shaheen is speaking to potential buyers.
“I never wanted to sell,” said Shaheen. “But how much can you take if you cannot have peace in your own home?”
Singer doesn’t deny that the town has issued violations to older properties that are consistently out of compliance with town standards. “We are trying to keep the community up to the standard that we expect and that everyone expects and we hope people do what they need to,” he said. He said residents — many of whom pay more than $100,000 a year in property taxes — expect the town to reflect that value. Town ordinances require homes to be well maintained, but have very few specifics.
“I think the administration is looking out for the new people who have brought big money into town. And they forget about the people who founded the town,” said Krogoll.
Krogoll’s parents bought 422 Golden Beach Dr. in 1943. A few years later the Shaheen family moved onto a bigger lot next door at 416 Golden Beach Dr. They lived in a one-story house with an open floor plan and large windows overlooking the Intracoastal, which runs along the back of the property.
The 3,500-square-foot Mediterranean-style home must have seemed grandiose in the 1940s, but today it looks small and slightly worn — some might call it quaint — next to behemoths of modern architecture sold for up to $27 million that have sprung up around it.
For decades, Shaheen says, it has always been something — Christmas lights, dead grass, a shoddy paint job — but above all, the city complains that the Shaheen home often has standing water in the driveway.
“It became a health hazard and a nuisance to other residents,” said Singer, who said he gets complaints from Shaheen’s neighbors on a regular basis. “People pay a lot in property taxes so they expect a lot. They expect the community to be upkept.”
Shaheen’s property sits lower than the properties around it, meaning water flows toward it when it rains or the town sprinkler system is on. And corrosive salt water streams down her driveway from the Intracoastal behind her house during high tides because Shaheen doesn’t have a sea wall. In fact, hers is the only waterfront property in town without one.
That’s because in 1995 the city made Shaheen’s mother, the owner at the time, take the wall out. She didn’t want to but Shaheen said the city levied $700,000 of unrelated code violations against the property. City officials offered to drop them if Shaheen and her mother tore out the sea wall and installed a different kind of barrier made of large boulders, called riprap. So the Shaheens entered into a settlement with the city and tore out the wall.
“I would have put the sea wall on my roof to get the lien off my property,” Shaheen said.
Now, more than 20 years later, the riprap has degraded, and water can again seep onto the property. Because of the 1995 settlement however, the city can’t force her to put in a new sea wall, which Shaheen says would be very expensive. So, instead, the city issued more code violations to pressure Shaheen to fix the standing water problem.
“What the town has done is be more aggressive, following up with all of the outstanding code violations — which include leaving standing water on the property,” said town attorney Stephen Helfman at a council meeting in 2016 when he was asked what the city was going to do about the standing water at the Shaheen home.
The city offered to pay for the new wall on the condition that Shaheen pay it back if she ever sells the property. She did not accept the city’s terms. But even if she wanted to, Shaheen can’t easily put in a sea wall. Her riprap is covered in mangrove trees that can’t be removed without a special permit and payment into a wetland bank. So, Shaheen continues to look for a buyer.
But the property is proving difficult to sell. A new buyer would not be protected by the 1995 agreement with the city and would have to put in a sea wall and make other expensive improvements to the property. Additionally, buyers in Golden Beach tend to want to split larger properties like Shaheen’s into two lots in order to build on each and sell at least one. The town denied that option for Shaheen’s property when interested parties inquired, saying the property is not wide enough to split under the city’s development codes.
So for now, Shaheen feels stuck.
In 2017, the city attempted to foreclose on her property for failure to pay numerous citations associated with the code violations. The suit involved other mitigating issues, including whether the property had a homestead exemption and whether the city provided Shaheen proper notice for the foreclosure proceedings. After more than a year of litigation, the city dropped the foreclosure action. Then, in 2018, the city filed an amended complaint asserting Shaheen’s home is a health hazard.
City officials declined to comment on the specifics of an ongoing lawsuit. However, Singer said that he thought Shaheen had more than enough chances to comply with codified expectations of the exclusive town.
“You hate to see it become litigation among fellow community residents,” Singer said. “But we’ve tried to work with her for over 10 years and nothing changed.”
Shaheen’s lawyer sees it as more punitive. “She is not part of the Town’s in-crowd and she doesn’t snap to just because the Town Mayor and Town Manager say so,” he wrote in a statement.
A previous version of this story misstated the sale price of June Krogoll’s home.