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Miami Herald - September 25, 2006

Overtown residents celebrate first homes

New homeowners at The Villas of St. Agnes, an affordable housing development in Overtown, call themselves blessed


For new owners, there's Yvonne and Joseph Luc spent their entire married lives as renters cramped in apartments. They wanted to keep housing costs from eating up their modest hospital-worker salaries so they could send their three kids to private school and college.

''We couldn't afford to even think of buying a house,'' said Yvonne Luc, 66, who retired earlier this month from her job as a nursing assistant at Mercy Hospital. ``Now look at us.''

She and her husband, 69, who recently retired from his job assisting patients at Mercy, beamed as they stood in the dining room of their new four-bedroom home in Overtown.

They are among the new owners in The Villas of St. Agnes, one of the largest single-family home developments built in Overtown in decades.

''Our kids are college graduates and professionals,'' said Yvonne Luc, who recalled living with her young family in the '70s in a tiny apartment above downtown Miami's legendary Tobacco Road and its blaring music. The sacrifice was worth it.

The Villas community of 80 three- and four-bedroom, pastel-colored Bahamian-style houses -- with wraparound porches and patches of grass in the front yards -- was built with tax dollars.

The development is being called by some a model of success in a county reeling from one of the nation's worst affordable housing shortages and from a scandal of mismanagement and misspending within the Miami-Dade Housing Agency exposed in July by The Miami Herald's investigation House of Lies.

It's also being hailed as a development that has improved the neighborhood just north of downtown without completely pricing out the residents of Overtown, where the median income hovers around $13,000.

''This development says that blacks are going to continue to have a presence in Overtown,'' said the Rev. Richard Marquess-Barry, rector of St. Agnes Episcopal Church and founder of the St. Agnes Rainbow Community Development Corporation, which partnered with the Miami-Dade County Empowerment Trust to get the 10-acre Villas project built.

''This is a development that is mixed socially and economically and it has very low, low and moderate income homeowners living in it,'' said Barry.

The Villas of St. Agnes -- built on the site of a long-ago demolished public housing project at Northwest Third Avenue between 18th and 19th streets -- was a partnership involving the Miami-Dade Empowerment Trust, St. Agnes Rainbow Village CDC and the Bank of America CDC, among others.

The county contributed $10 million, including $1.15 million for the land. The remaining $8.85 million went toward construction costs of $17 million.

The St. Agnes CDC took a loan from the Empowerment Trust for the balance. That money was repaid when the homes were sold, said Aundra Wallace, president of the Empowerment Trust.

Prospective home buyers had to attend first-time homeowner classes sponsored by the county to learn how the process works, and to get help cleaning up their credit and bolstering their savings accounts.

Preconstruction prices for the three- and four-bedroom homes ranged from $95,000 to $115,000. The prices went up to $105,000 to $125,000 after construction started. The development is sold out. According to the county, 32 of the buyers received some sort of subsidy toward their mortgage or purchase costs.

Some of that subsidy money came from the county and federal government, and some from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which gave $400,000 to help low-income buyers with second mortgages that they won't have to repay as long as they live in the house for 15 years.

Sharmin Crumbley, 43, never thought she'd own a home in Overtown -- or anywhere else. She lived on the streets from 1985 to 1996, a self-described drug addict and alcoholic. She sobered up in treatment in the late 1990s. Now, she earns $19,000 a year working at the Homeless Assistance Center.

She bought a $95,000 three-bedroom home in The Villas with the help of subsidies.

''This means the world to me,'' she said. Before moving in The Villas she was renting an apartment in Earlington Heights for $550 a month. Her mortgage, after all the subsidies, is less than $100 a month.

''This has given me the opportunity to experience the American Dream. God gave me a blessing with this house,'' Crumbley said.

Many of the new homeowners at the Villas consider themselves blessed. A five-year surge in real estate and land costs coupled with stagnant wages has put home ownership out of the reach of many in South Florida.

''We looked for years for something we could afford,'' said Monique Strachan, 33, a case worker for a county agency who lives in a four-bedroom home with her husband Alton, 33, a teacher, and their two children. ``We were finding houses in the Liberty City area that were selling for $160,000, and they needed so much work they weren't even worth $50,000.''

They bought their Villas house for $125,000 without any subsidies.

The couple grew up in Overtown, and that's where they wanted to stay.

''We love Overtown, and despite what you see in the media and people's perceptions, the people of Overtown do work and they don't all use drugs and we don't want to rent our whole lives,'' Monique Strachan said.

Her only complaint was the long wait for The Villas to be built after the project was announced in 2000.

''This property had been vacant for so many years, and we almost gave up,'' she said.

Wallace said the delays were typical of snags that beset large projects. But he added that the project has slowed down, for the moment, the feared gentrification of Overtown.

''I don't think you can ever stop it totally because of market forces,'' he said.

Barry, the Episcopal priest at St. Agnes who founded the CDC, said if market forces had prevailed, $300,000 lofts would have been built on the property.

''Those are not for the people here,'' he said. ``The average person in Overtown could not afford to buy even a $100,000 house without heavy subsidies. What do you with those people?''

He answers his own question.

``You build affordable housing -- not public-welfare housing -- but affordable housing that the working poor can afford with subsidies. We can't let the city allow developers to run out the poor people who have been in Overtown for their entire lives.''