Downtown Miami

In Miami’s Little Haiti, some business owners displaced by gentrification lose out.

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When developers jockey over property in Little Haiti, some Haitian business owners lose out.

Marie Jeannine Desir ran a dress shop for a dozen years in a strip mall in Little Haiti’s northernmost corner that was home to several Haitian-owned businesses. She sold mostly inexpensive women’s clothing made in India, bought on trips to Panama and New York. Desir said she paid a total monthly rent of $1,790 for two shopfronts off Northeast Second Avenue.

Then developer Thomas Conway bought the rundown strip and another across Second Avenue, for a total of $6.25 million, according to public records. He vacated both before undertaking a total renovation. Because the tenants had no leases, they got just a 15-day notice.

That gave Desir little time to find another shop and move her stock. But she wanted to stay close. She doesn’t drive and both she and her customers live in the immediate neighborhood, in an area developers are re-branding as Little River, a historic name.

She advanced local landlord Antonio Ward $6,970 to move into a long-vacant shop fronting Second Avenue a couple of blocks north of her former place.

There was one problem: Desir knew the roof of Ward’s shop leaked, but said she was desperate and signed a lease after the landlord promised to make repairs. By his own admission, it took Ward several months to replace the roof, though, and in the meantime water pouring in on rainy days ruined much of her merchandise, she contends. The roof still leaks. After a rainy day, the smell of mold and mildew in her shop was overpowering. Buckets on the floor stood full of rain water.

The move and the damage have killed her business, Desir said. Because she withheld rent payments, Ward is now suing her for eviction. She says Ward took advantage of her situation.

“Look at this mess,” Desir said. “The customers don’t want to buy because of the smell. People tell me they don’t know how I have the heart to stay. But where else would I go? I have suffered a lot. I am so stressed.”

Ward said he just wants her gone. He claims she begged him to rent her the shop, knowing it was leaking although he insists that the leak was confined to a room at the back of the shop that wasn’t included in the lease. When she failed to pay for utilities, FPL cut off the power, he said. Water service was never turned on. He says it was Desir who took advantage of his good will.

“I told her the place is leaking and it’s not for rent. I made the mistake to rent to this lady,” Ward said. “She said it was an emergency. She had tears in her eyes. I bent the rules. Because of her insistence, I went against my instinct. I have done nothing but to help this lady. This lady is about taking my blood.”

Desir said she had just two choices: To leave Little Haiti and start over in Liberty City, where rents are lower, or go out of business entirely. Shortly after reporters visited this summer, Desir vacated the shop.

Conway completed the renovations, giving the strip malls a clean, modern look. He has one holdover business, a Metro PCS store, a couple of Haitian-run pop-up stores, and a new boutique and gym, though at least half his shops are vacant. Conway declined to comment.

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Andres Viglucci covers urban affairs for the Miami Herald. He joined the Herald in 1983.