Neighborhood Transformation
Neighborhood Transformation
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Miami Herald May 4, 2014

South Florida Real Estate
Housing rebound eludes poor neighborhoods

Amid the rebound, poor neighborhoods still struggle with foreclosures, abandoned homes,and depressed prices

By Martha Brannigan

Little has changed at the sad, vacant bungalow at 9215 NW 29th Ct., since the night 2 1/2 years ago when neighbors overheard squabbling and called police.

One squatter had stabbed another to death, police say.

Today the 1947-vintage house remains abandoned. It is boarded up, though some planks are pried back and the door is ajar. Trash and yard debris pile high under a crumbling carport. Weeds have long since overtaken the yard.

Next door, Iftikhar Ahmad, a Pakistani immigrant who owns a 700-square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bath home, complains the place is a magnet for druggies.

Miami-Dade County is making international headlines for its swaggering resurgence from the housing crash, yet for the north-central neighborhoods comprising ZIP code 33147, the crisis remains today’s reality.

Many homes are still in the labyrinth of foreclosure. Those property owners who survived — like Ahmad, 68, a retiree who himself went through a loan modification — are struggling with the fallout from neighbors who lost their humble homes.

On Ahmad’s east side, a decaying house with an illegal addition was seized by lenders in 2013 after a long foreclosure fight.

The property at 2925 NW 92nd St. sat empty for about a year, inviting menace and intruders until someone finally bought it in February. The price: $40,000.

"We had danger on two sides," said Ahmad, who often reads by his front window with a magnifying glass or prays with beads in hand. "Now, we have danger on one side."

In April, an electrical fire damaged Ahmad’s house, leaving him uncertain what to do. He’s uninsured.

Working-class neighborhoods

ZIP 33147 is another face of South Florida’s housing landscape, a world apart from the glittering condo towers that shape the popular image of Miami.

The swath of north-central Miami-Dade encompasses portions of Liberty City, Brownsville, and West Little River, working-class neighborhoods struggling for decades to overcome poverty, unemployment and urban decline. ZIP 33147 is home to Liberty Square, the first public housing project in Florida and a site of the 1980 race riots.

Over the years, a host of well-intended initiatives have taken stabs at lifting the area out of blight. Things never improved much. Then came the housing crash, triggering the worst recession since the Great Depression.

"The neighborhoods that were struggling before the crash are struggling even more now," says Arden Shank, president of Neighborhood Housing Services of South Florida, a nonprofit that helps people buy and keep their homes.

Prices lower than 2003

According to a Miami Herald analysis of home sales data, the median price for a home in ZIP 33147 is lower than it was more than a decade ago. Prices in these depressed areas spiked during the bubble, often unjustifiably, like elsewhere in Miami. But then they went down and stayed down.

The rundown homes hold opportunity — just not for the residents there. The humble structures, mainly older and smaller units, are selling to bottom-fishing investors armed with cash. The homes were once owner-occupied but are now remade into rentals.

"The only owners who would want to live there can’t get loans," said Michael Briansky, a Miami Beach-based real estate investor whose company purchased 9215 NW 29 Ct. for $120,000 in 2006 and sold it for $200,000 in 2007. That was long before the fatal stabbing of the 44-year-old homeless man, Jose Vargas, and just before the housing market took a dive.

"I haven’t been over there. It’s a scary area," said Briansky, who initially struggled to remember the place among a large portfolio of holdings.

The average person can’t participate in buying the bank-owned houses that go at discounts. Investors with cash trump them.

John Judice, a Miami Beach Realtor, specializes in such purchases. Judice, a retired New Jersey car dealer, said he has purchased dozens of units in Miami-Dade’s depressed areas, including in ZIP 33147.

He fixes them up and turns them into Section 8 housing for rentals to poor people who get government vouchers. "All I do is take advantage of the government," Judice said.

"We put in a new kitchen, new floors. People know when we do something that it’s first class," he explained over a mug of coffee at Jimmy’s Eastside Diner. "We’ll take a dog, a tramp, and make a lady out of it."

Under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 8 voucher program, the federal government pays most of the rent. Often, it pays above-market rates.

His investments do well, Judice said, typically generating a 12 percent to 14 percent annual return.

"If I sell, I sell to an investor with cash," he added. The reason: Mortgage lending standards are still tight, making the approval process cumbersome and uncertain. Home appraisals often come in lower than the agreed-upon prices, torpedoing deals that hinge on financing. And a ready pool of investors are on the prowl for homes, enabling sellers to call the shots.

"The banks take 60, 90, 120 days to decide [whether to approve a loan]," Judice said. "There are plenty of cash investors."

Languishing in limbo

Many homes in ZIP 33147 are in limbo. The mortgage lender filed foreclosure proceedings against the owners of 9215 NW 29th Ct. in 2009 but dropped the case without explanation later that year.

The owners abandoned the property. They couldn’t be located for this article. They haven’t paid property taxes in years. The county sold tax certificates to investors for several years, and it has slapped tens of thousands of dollars of liens on the house for code violations for failure to maintain the lot and allowing mounds of trash. County code enforcement officers made 18 visits since 2009, including as recently as Jan. 2. Yet the problem continues. In March, the county transferred the property by tax deed to a Miami Beach-based limited liability company for $17,000.

It’s a common scenario.

Joy Davis, president of the Gladeview Homeowners and Civic Association, said many neighbors take pride in maintaining their modest homes and yards. Many residents are retirees who stay home all day, bolstering the neighborhood’s CrimeWatch efforts.

Gladeview is a relatively bright spot surrounded by blight. Even so, it is rare to walk more than two or three blocks these days without spotting at least one abandoned house. "I think we have more abandoned houses now than we ever did," she said.

Davis, who grew up in the 2900 block of Northwest 64th Street, took over her parents’ home when they retired to Valdosta, Ga., in the 1990s. Her folks were happy to keep the home in the family. In recent years, however, some other older residents have taken out reverse mortgages. That means their houses don’t pass on to their kids, cutting a key source of wealth transfer.

Back in her childhood, buying a home in the neighborhood marked an achievement for an African-American family. Her parents moved there from an apartment in Overtown.

"It was moving up," said Davis, a counselor for Miami-Dade Public Schools who has a doctorate in education leadership and a masters in social work.

On a walk along her tree-lined street, Davis stopped in front of 2915 NW 64th St., where an abandoned house contrasts with the manicured lawns and homes nearby.

Davis said, "A lot of my friends say, ‘Why are you there? You need to get your condo on the beach.’ "

Her answer: Gladeview is home.

Davis, 47, is a member of the county’s North Central Community Council, which hears zoning issues. She said many professionals in her peer group have left the predominantly African-American neighborhood. As with much of Miami-Dade, more Hispanics are moving there.

"I’m trying to get more people in my age group to get more involved. The older people were invested in the community." But as seniors die, younger residents often don’t share the same commitment to the area, she said.

Her neighbor, Bo Coney, died in May 2010. His relatives haven’t taken responsibility for his empty house at 2915 NW 64th St., neighbors say. The county has imposed big liens for code violations and sold tax certificates to investors for unpaid property taxes.

Still, the house sits idle.

David and Josephine Morris live next door to the eyesore in a meticulously kept ranch home with decorative columns, a circular driveway and a backyard pool.

"I look at that [vacant] house every day," said David Morris, who has owned his place more than 20 years.

Morris said he sometimes complains to the county about the deceased neighbor’s neglected yard or lack of maintenance. Code-enforcement officers come around and issue citations. But the underlying problem lingers.

In such cases, the county, as needed, will board up doors and windows to discourage vagrants. And it can clean up yards and bill the owner.

After several years, the county can hold a tax-deed sale on a property. However, abandoned properties have often racked up taxes and liens that far exceed their value, so no one wants them.

"It hits the point where the taxes and liens just make it unviable to buy it," said Tom Robertson, an assistant county attorney for Miami-Dade.

Such abandoned homes can linger for years longer, until eventually they are "escheated" or deeded to the municipality in which they sit.

Construction of new homes in ZIP 33147 is largely the work of nonprofits like Neighborhood Housing Services. Among them is Habitat for Humanity, which since 2005 has built 212 new affordable, owner-occupied houses there.

Most of the other new housing going up there is for rent, not ownership. Carlisle Development Group, an affordable housing developer, was developing Northside Transit Village, a 100-unit affordable rental project at Northwest 31st Avenue and 79th Street.

As reported by the Miami Herald, Carlisle recently sold the Northside Transit Village project and three others to Atlantic|Pacific Community Housing Development after a federal criminal investigation of the company posed obstacles to its obtaining private financing.

Carlisle is under federal grand jury investigation looking at allegations the company defrauded the federal government by exaggerating its construction costs to get bigger tax subsidies to finance various rental projects in Miami-Dade and Broward. Carlisle hasn’t been charged with any wrongdoing.

Redevelopment spurs hope

The neighborhood’s biggest promise is an intensifying focus on redeveloping the 79th Street corridor. The county approved the creation of a community redevelopment area in 2009, but with property values in the dumps, the effort has yet to raise incremental tax revenue for the CRA.

A new Wal-Mart is going up at Northwest 32nd Avenue and 79th Street. That is expected to lure other shops and restaurants.

Street improvements are coming. The Urban League of Greater Miami is working with NHSSF and others to lead the effort.

But tangible benefits lie in the future. NHSSF president Shank said leaders, determined to make headway this time, are setting concrete short-term and longer-term goals.

"Residents and business owners have been told for years things would happen, and nothing ever does," he said.