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Miami Herald 6/1/02
Uncertainty in South Dade - Low Income Neighborhoods have not
bounced back 10 years after Andrew
By William Yardley
Ten years after Hurricane Andrew devastated South Miami-Dade, the region is an uncertain
frontier -- abandoned by some as a wasteland, embraced by others as the last large
corner of open land in the county.
And today marks the annual affirmation of uncertainty: The first day of hurricane
''Everybody likes to see the end of August go by,'' said Robert Anderson, chairman
of the Vision Council, an economic development group in the area.
Census figures released last week show poverty levels in most South Dade communities
rose and median household income fell -- the changes sometimes sharp in each direction
-- from 1990 to 2000, the decade Hurricane Andrew instantly reshaped on Aug. 24,
The route to recovery, however, appears more complicated than simple statistical
comparisons between then and now. Strong signs of progress stand almost side-by-side
with bleak evidence of stagnation.
Regardless of statistics or storms, developers running out of room to build elsewhere
are selling a long-term forecast as sunny as it was when workers finally nailed
down the railroad ties that linked Miami to Key West in 1912.
''I think the availability of land in other areas of the county really make it such
that Homestead is just logically the next place people will move to,'' said Anthony
Seijas, Miami-Dade division president for Lennar Homes.
In recent weeks, heavy construction machinery has rolled in Homestead, where Lennar
and others are planning more than 2,000 new homes, most targeted for young families
who would commute north to work. But just up the road in Naranja and Goulds, U.S.
1 retains its post-hurricane nickname, ''the Dead Zone,'' a dreary corridor of For-Lease
signs and used-car lots.
In Florida City, the mayor boasts of brokering deals to bring big-box stores to
his exit-ramp town. But in unincorporated Naranja, served by the county government,
the poverty rate jumped from 18 to 50 percent in the decade of Hurricane Andrew.
Countywide, the poverty level stayed flat, at 18 percent. It is a given that Andrew
forever altered the landscape, driving away a large chunk of middle-class residents
and expediting the closure of Homestead Air Force Base, a key economic engine.
But locals say there is more to it: Some say income figures are skewed by seasonal
migrant workers. Some say international farming competition, spurred by the North
American Free Trade Agreement that President Clinton signed in 1993, almost instantly
began shrinking agricultural operations and related job opportunities.
Others say county government, consumed with issues in more urban areas to the north,
will never be as devoted to post-Andrew economic redevelopment in unincorporated
areas like Naranja and Leisure City as will local governments in Homestead and Florida
And many places were far from thriving before Andrew struck. The median household
income in Goulds rose 2 percent to $19,633 in 2000. In Florida City, income declined
from $20,658 to $14,923. All figures are adjusted for inflation.
But in Leisure City, a more prosperous area close to the closed air base, median
household income dropped from $34,299 to $29,091. And nowhere took the hit that
Naranja did. There, the median income sank from $32,112 to $18,825, compared with
a 3 percent increase countywide to $35,966.
Parsuram Ramkissoon bought the International House of Pancakes restaurant on U.S.
1 in Naranja the week before Andrew struck. Unlike so many others, he stayed.
''I came down here and said, you know, I'm going to make it here,'' said Ramkissoon.
He has been honored by the community for his resolve and his constant demands for
attention from the county, but he said the loss of middle-income homeowners and
the rise of renters continues to hurt his business and the stability of the area.
''Nobody has an interest in this area,'' he said, ``even the people who are living
Places like Naranja, Leisure City and Princeton are unincorporated, without formal
local governments. Some say they also lack lobbying power with the county and state.
''In a municipality we have the ability to touch things more directly, as opposed
to being a very small part of a very large community,'' said Florida City Mayor
Otis Wallace. ''I negotiated directly with both Wal-Mart and Home Depot,'' two big
retailers who have come to U.S. 1 in Florida City in the last few years.
But Anderson, of the Vision Council, noted that Palm Drive, a major thoroughfare
in Florida City, is striking in its array of social services activity.
''You get the feeling that the population that's working is taking care of the population
that isn't,'' Anderson said.
Arturo Lopez, executive director for the Coalition of Florida Farmworker Organizations,
said the minimum-wage plight of migrant workers is probably little different than
it was in 1990, although new, post-Andrew housing has improved living conditions.
Lopez also said that an agricultural trend in the region to move toward ornamental
nurseries has created more year-round work for migrants, stabilizing the workforce
''It means that their children can now attend school full-time, rather than leaving
a month early and starting late,'' Lopez said. ``The nursery industry is interested
in creating a stable workforce. They see it as something that will work for them,
WAGES STILL LOW
But wages remain low.
Ben Arrasola, 26, dodges layoffs and juggles jobs to piece together a living, and
he still does better than many who work in agriculture here. He drives a forklift
for two different packing houses in Florida City, making $8 an hour in one job and
$6.25 in the other. In the winter, he said, he works as many as 80 hours a week.
For Arrasola, the signs of residential development coming to the area -- often where
farming operations once existed -- are a mixed blessing.
''You see all the houses going up and all the businesses going down,'' he said.
But Anderson, the Vision Council chairman, and Seijas, the Miami-Dade division president
for Lennar, said those houses eventually could mean more and better opportunity
for workers like Arrasola.
''As you see more development and newer residents coming in, you'll see the existing
community get a facelift,'' Seijas said. ``It's going to get buzz and it's going
to attract that much more traffic.''
Seijas said that even desolate places like Naranja, where the county is in the process
of installing a sewer system and a busway extending down U.S. 1 that could include
miniature ''town centers,'' could see new single-family housing being built, particularly
since Broward and western Miami-Dade are running out of room.
''It would not surprise me to see us develop there in the near future,'' Seijas
said. ``You want to kind of test the market before you get in deeper.''
But developers have said similar things about South Miami-Dade, before and after
Andrew. Finding a reliable barometer for the region's economic direction is a challenge.
At the Playpen South Nude Review on U.S. 1 in Goulds, an assistant manager who identified
himself only as David said his business' relative stability was not necessarily
a good gauge for the area's economic potential.
''People come here for two reasons,'' he said, stepping outside the dark interior,
where a woman wearing florescent yellow -- very little of it -- was engaged with
a brass column that reached from ceiling to bar top. ``They got money, or they got
Herald database editor Tim Henderson and staff writer Andrea Elliott contributed
to this report.