Longtime Coconut Grovites remember when they knew each homeowner by name and when a sense of community was strong. Palm Sunday processionals and Christmas parades were regular fare.
“I could drive around, slow down and speak to everybody,” said Leona Cooper Baker, 80. “Now I don’t know the people who are moving in.”
Baker’s concerns are shared by other longtime West Grove residents who fear fast-moving sales are changing the look of the Bahamian-style homes to the big-box McMansions that proliferate the settlement.
“My concern is they’re coming on the south side of Grand Avenue where we used to be,” Baker said. “I see them putting those houses in there. That’s scary.“
Native Village West residents have long had fears about encroachment by developers and relocation of wealthy and white people into their enclave. Property costs in the neighborhood have priced many of their children and grandchildren out of the market; other longtime renters have been forced to leave as developers scoop up duplexes and buildings and replace them with houses and condos that are well out of their price range.
Now Miami City Commissioner Ken Russell wants a study of the economic conditions of Village West, as a step toward creating a community redevelopment area that could bring affordable housing to a neighborhood where gentrification seems to be on steroids. That item will be discussed at Thursday’s commission meeting.
Rather than create a new CRA, Russell wants to expand the existing Omni CRA into Village West. The two neighborhoods are miles apart, and separated by tony areas such as the Roads and Brickell. However, Russell said a Florida Atlantic University professor, who is an expert in CRA operations, supports the idea for such other agencies serving noncontiguous areas.
Russell believes that by expanding the existing CRA that already has $8 million in tax revenue, the city could begin to give incentives to developers to build affordable housing in West Grove. District 2, which he represents, is the most prosperous of all the five commission districts. So, he only receives about $90,000 annually in anti-poverty funds.
“The irony is because of the wealth, it has put a bigger target on [non-wealthy] areas for gentrification and displacement,” Russell said. “It needs more help, and I don’t have the funds.” He said a CRA could have an affect on what developers can do in Village West.
The intent is to work with Village West residents and develop creative housing and business opportunities to preserve and improve the community.
The president of the homeowners and tenants association said some type of designation for Village West is overdue. J.S. Rashid says the city never fulfilled its promises when it created a Neighborhood Development Zone (NDZ) for Village West, also known as Black Grove, in 1968 after riots tore through Black communities throughout the United States.
Such areas were to receive millions of dollars in the form of community development block grants to help revitalize neighborhoods and reduce perceived or real inequities.
Rashid said the city has given “modest” funding from CDBG funds to address some unmet needs in the community, such as housing, job creation, youth and family counseling and support for HIV/AIDS clients.
However, Rashid said the Coconut Grove Collaborative, a development agency where he is executive director, unsuccessfully attempted several times to get a CRA designation.
“We tried over years, but we never could meet the threshold or standards necessary for a CRA,” Rashid said. He added that he isn’t sold on the idea of a CRA as the best way to bring affordable housing to the Grove. He argued that the creation process is too lengthy.
“Some people get caught up in the romance of the program rather than the objective such as business development and job creation,” he said. “ Affordable housing doesn’t have to be addressed in CRA. By the time you get it structured, all the Black [residents] will be pushed out.”
Russell said the NDZ designation had not been followed and did not have teeth to fight the ongoing development and encroachment. “It’s left to the market. I believe the CRA would stave off displacement,” he said.
On Thursday, Russell will ask his colleagues to approve a needs assessment, which would instruct City Manager Daniel J. Alfonso to hire a consultant to see if the CRA is warranted. If commissioners decide to expand the Omni CRA, that work would fall into the hands of executive director Jason Walker, who grew up in West Grove and knows the area well.
“The market and the strength of the dollar is stronger than the political will and the current code to protect the neighborhood from inappropriate development,” Russell said.
Village West residents like Loretta Whittle hope some relief is on the horizon.
She moved into the area when she was in elementary school. But her family roots date back much earlier. Her great uncle settled into the Grove in the late 1800s and was a signer of Miami’s charter.
Whittle’s mother lived in a house in the Grove, a part of the neighborhood where whites lived.
“When we moved in they left in droves, and went to the suburbs,” Whittle said. “Then the neighborhood became all Black.” She lived next to two Black residents who hailed from Georgia and the Carolinas. They worked as educators and other professionals, retired, then moved back to their home states. Many of them sold their homes to the children of people who fled to the suburbs.
“The white folks learned it was too far in the country and they’re coming back,” she said.
“Affordable, it means you can’t afford the housing. Most of the people who live in the Grove, a lot of people did maid’s work. They can’t afford the rent,” Whittle said.