Community Voices

Opinion: Is Gentrification Inevitable in Little Bahamas?

Andy Parrish is a longtime resident of Coconut Grove, a historic preservationist and a developer of single-family homes for working families who currently serves as Vice Chair of Miami’s Planning, Zoning and Appeals Board. He wrote this opinion piece for the Spotlight.

Things have changed a lot in 30 years. In 1994 when my company Wind & Rain built the first of 16 single-family homes in what was once known as the “Black Grove,” the population was roughly 90 percent African-American. By 2020, according to data from the University of Miami’s Center for Ethics and Public Service, that number had dropped by nearly half. 

Those modest three-bedroom, two-bath houses with large front porches were the first to be built in the West Grove (recently renamed Little Bahamas) by a for-profit developer in many decades.

Through a partnership with the City of Miami, the homes were affordable to families with incomes of around $25,000. They cost less than $100,000. After a $3,000 down payment, monthly payments were the equivalent of a rent payment, thanks to a “soft” second mortgage program implemented by the city.

Thirty years later, it’s satisfying to know that most of the original buyers are still in their homes, with their children grown and some with college degrees.

How long they remain there is anyone’s guess. Those same 1,200-square-foot homes are now worth upwards of $500,000. Never are the new buyers from within the same neighborhood. And when long-time property owners finally cash out, even a half million dollars isn’t enough for them to stay in Coconut Grove. 

So, they leave for communities where housing costs are lower. As for displaced renters, even the most basic rental unit in Little Bahamas – if you can find one – starts at $1,250 per month.

What’s happening now

For better or worse, those new homes my company built started a speculative land boom in the West Grove resulting eventually in the construction of scores of massive townhouses costing well over $1 million each where older single-family homes once stood. 

Why are Little Bahamas residents, many of whose Bahamian ancestors helped settle and build early Miami, leaving in such increasing numbers? The short answer: Gentrification.

Like so many lower-income neighborhoods across Miami-Dade, the West Grove has now become extremely desirable and attractive to developers due to its prime location, high elevation, private schools, and… the list goes on. But the primary reason is low land values relative to adjacent and much wealthier neighborhoods.

It has taken decades for this rapid gentrification to happen, mainly because of the high percentage of homeownership by African-American families, and the anchoring stability of the West Grove’s two dozen churches.

But is gentrification inevitable in a desirable, fast growing, traffic-strangled metropolis like Miami? Many people, apparently including most of our politicians, believe it is. I don’t, and neither do city planners in many other cities confronting the same problem.

Short term / long term goals: Both are needed

We are going to need more than just new high-rises. 

Research nationwide has shown that communities with high levels of homeownership can better ride out the winds of gentrification. Owning one’s home helps to bolster civic institutions, strengthens community bonds, builds neighborhood trust and allows residents to build generational wealth in the place they call home.  Homeownership also fills local church pews and local school desks, building neighborhood pride.

But homeownership – either outright or through a community land trust – requires a far more creative approach to public investment in poorer neighborhoods. It also requires hard choices to be made about who gets helped and how much.

Families of all ethnicities need (a) to love where they live and (b) also have the ability to stay in their homes, whether rented or owned. The first depends on all the things that make up a community: family, friends, churches, good jobs, good schools and recreational facilities, and safe, clean streets and neighborhoods.  

The second requires much more civic support than just additional subsidized rental housing and the 3% cap on real estate tax assessments on homesteaded properties. 

Before you can determine what kind of civic support is necessary, you first must analyze what makes a neighborhood poor, and that is lack of investment.  

Private investment looks to existing market rates to see if renovations and new construction can be profitable. That takes into account things like traffic count, available parking, and the buying power of local residents, which in turn determines whether you get a Starbucks or a Bernice’s Soul Food diner like the one on Grand Avenue for many years.

Public investment by comparison looks at demographic data and poverty levels. It is also keenly attuned to political pressure for assisting redevelopment with up-zonings, public parking, and transportation improvements. Especially in poorer neighborhoods, those types of civic support can accelerate gentrification even though intended to help all residents of the targeted neighborhood.

To date, the lack of affordable housing has caused politicians to see high-rise apartment buildings with set-aside rental units for lower income families as the answer to both the housing crisis and unintended gentrification.  

In the short term, that certainly is the most economical way to increase the number of units occupied by lower-income tenants, but lots of families with children (and pets) don’t want to live in a high-rise. The long-term result of high-rise only development is also important to consider: Do the residents love living there? 

What can be done? 

This is where the choices get hard. We need more housing, particularly in all low-income neighborhoods, but we also need more personal investment, not only monetary, in those same neighborhoods by the people living there.

Helping poorer neighborhoods overcome years of neglect, and yes, bad political choices wasting millions in those neighborhoods, will be expensive but not prohibitively so. Let’s consider some low-hanging fruit:

Ease Building Requirements:  Increasing the overall supply of housing should reduce rental cost eventually. Providing well-accessed, well-designed and affordable apartments for those people willing in return to give up the convenience of having a car will require a parking waiver for apartment-zoned land within walking distance of a Metrorail station. In turn, nearby commercial businesses and churches should be allowed to rent their unused parking in the evenings and weekends. To begin, the city should embrace the Miami 21 Task Force proposal for additional parking waivers. The city also could increase the number of affordable apartments by increasing the allowed density from 36 to 72 units per acre while leaving the maximum height restrictions in place. It’s mostly the height that bothers neighbors, not the number of apartments.

Allow “Granny Flats” and help them get built:  Ancillary Dwelling Units (ADU’s), commonly known as “granny flats,” allow multiple generations to enjoy the use of a single-family zoned property. If all single-family zoned properties in Little Bahamas were allowed to build up to 450 square-foot “efficiencies” there would be less pressure for families to sell out and leave. These granny flats could also provide additional income provided there are regulations and enforcement in place to prevent short-term rentals. Funds for building granny flats could be provided from a new “soft” second mortgage program and also from payments derived from any up-zonings in the neighborhood, with 10-year restrictions on sale of the properties receiving the funds.

Build Public Parking Garages: If local stores and services are to be revitalized and encouraged to serve their neighborhoods and not just commuters, the city and its parking authority need to start building parking garages in commercial areas where rents and demand are now low, in order to stimulate prosperity in the future. Risky? Yes. The intersection of Grand and Douglas would be a great place to try it and see.  

Provide “Mom and Pop” Loans:  To increase the chances of small-business success, subsidize local merchants and start-ups with grants or “Mom and Pop” loans until they can survive without additional assistance.

Require enforcement of existing design guidelines and regulations: Architecture is important if existing residents are to have a say in the place they call home. The Miami 21 Zoning Code now has specific guidelines regulating all new development in Miami’s various neighborhoods (Article 4, Table 12). 

For example, following just two of the new regulations – “Ensure development is contextually sensitive to historical and cultural assets that contribute to the Neighborhood character” and “Ensure the scale and mass of Buildings and Building additions reinforce and enhance the existing streetscape and Neighborhood character” — would have prevented the incompatible development you see all along Day Avenue.

If Miami is going to resist becoming a city of the very rich few and the increasingly poor, solving the housing crisis without fueling rampant gentrification will be the key. It will require difficult political choices. But those choices are there in front of us, and if pursued and implemented wisely, they can assure that Miami evolves into a city of economically and ethnically mixed and valued neighborhoods for everyone.

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