Dramatic Facelift for Low-Income Housing in Miami

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Villa Maria in Miami, Fla.New-and-improved home sweet home.

A Mediterranean Revival style building, once so deteriorated that the city of Miami Beach was ready to demolish it, has been brought back to life by the Miami Beach Community Development Corporation (CDC), a non-profit group that will maintain it as housing for low-income seniors.

The 11 residents who still lived at Villa Maria when the renovation work began in July 2008 will come back to the building, which sits on Collins Avenue and 28th Street in the heart of the city's heavily trafficked hotel district. Returning to their renovated apartments is a huge blessing. They enjoyed -- and missed -- the comeraderie among the tenants in the building.

The rest of the 34 units will be rented to seniors on fixed incomes. The tenants will pay only 30 percent of their monthly income for rent. The remainder is subsidized through a federal housing program. (To be eligible for HUD's Section 8 housing subsidy program, family income must be 50 percent below the median income of an area. In the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area, the median income is $55,900.)
The CDC bought the building (they used $2 million provided by the City of Miami) from a developer who planned to take advantage of the demolition order and put up a luxury condo tower. The $6.6 million for restoration -- funded by city, state and federal dollars as well as private money including a grant from CitiFoundation -- replaced crumbling concrete and rusted pipes with new walls, floors, cabinets and appliances and coats of fresh paint. The property includes a parking lot, where the CDC will soon begin to build a brand new building, also for senior housing.

A documentary that chronicles the restoration of Villa Maria that began in 2008-- "Building Lives: The Story of the Miami Beach Community Development Corporation"--premieres this Thursday (more information below). The documentary also tells the story of CDC and its effort to maintain affordable housing on Miami Beach. The non-profit organization grew out of the preservation movement in the 1970s when Barbara Baer Capitman and several Beach residents created the Miami Design Preservation League to protect the city's architectural heritage. As the city began its resurgence, Capitman and her colleagues quickly saw the need to maintain housing for residents of all economic levels, especially the elderly who had congregated in Miami Beach for years. Hence the creation of the Miami Beach Community Development Corporation.

Jack Johnson, chairman of the Miami Beach CDC, explained how the Villa Maria project took form, its impact on the surrounding area and detailed the agency's mission.

Villa Maria in Miami, Fla.

HW: How will the renovation of Villa Maria affect the surrounding neighborhood, especially in terms of rental rates and home values?

JJ: We increase their value. If you had seen Villa Maria before we bought it as compared to what it looks like now, you'd see the renovation has significantly improved the surrounding area. Private developers like it when the CDC comes [to the neighborhood] because it immediately makes their properties more valuable.

We don't build plain, ugly housing. We take beautiful older buildings and restore them in such a way that our project becomes the best building in the block. We have never had a "not-in-my-backyard" response to any of our projects. People want us to renovate buildings in their neighborhood.

Where did the 11 residents who were still at Villa Maria go when the renovation got under way?
The residents were moved into other properties that we own. We already have 14 properties in operation and we have another eight that we're currently developing. We'll soon have over 500 housing units that we operate.

If this agency didn't exist, what would happen to these lower-income residents?
They would have left Miami Beach by now. There have been a few times in the past when it would have been impossible for people in this income level to find decent housing in Miami Beach. That isn't the case today due to the depressed housing market. There are a lot of privately owned buildings that rent apartments nowadays for rates close to what we offer. But that's a temporary situation. That will change once the real estate market recovers. Our housing isn't temporary.

(Rent for a one-bedroom apartment in an older renovated building in Miami Beach could run between $1,000 and $1,500 a month, and possibly higher, depending on its location.)


Why is it so important to maintain housing in Miami Beach for senior and folks living on a fixed income?

The mix of people in Miami Beach is one of the things, addition to the architecture, that makes it so unique. We work to preserve that neighborhood feel, which is dependent on the income mix of the people in the neighborhood as it is on the physical surroundings.

There are lots of empty apartments in Miami Beach right now thanks to the recent building boom. How does that impact Villa Maria and the other properties that the CDC runs?

When we opened [the application process] for Villa Maria, we received 600 applications in one week for the 34 units in the building. People think of Miami Beach as a wealthy community. But over half of the people on the Beach qualify, based on income, for our program

What happens to those people do didn't get an apartment at Villa Maria?

Assuming they qualify, they will be part of a lottery for units at Villa Maria as they become available. They could also be future tenants in other buildings that we own.

How did the Miami Beach CDC start out?
In the early years, we worked only to promote development on Miami Beach.

In 1979, the Miami Beach's Art Deco district received its designation as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. How did that impact housing and rental values in the city?
We started to attract developers because of the federal tax credit they could get if they preserved the older buildings. We soon began to see developers come back to Miami Beach and tourism begin to come back, which also, of course, resulted in rents going up. The CDC realized that because of its success, it needed to start doing housing for low-income people. That way the economic mix that existed in Miami Beach could be maintained.

Is Villa Maria in the historic district?
No, the Art Deco district extends from 6th to 18th Street. But Villa Maria, originally, known as Hampton House is a significant building because it's one of the older extant buildings in Miami Beach. It was built in 1924.


For tickets for the premiere of "Building Lives: The Story of the Miami Beach Community Development Authority" Thursday, Feb. 18., at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach, contact the
theater box office via Ticketmaster, or Denis Russ at the Miami Beach CDC. Cost is $50; $45 will be considered a donation to the Miami Beach CDC, which is a 501c3 organization.

"Building Live: The story of the Miami Beach Community Development Corporation"
Directed and Produced by Cork Friedman
Produced by Jack Johnson
A Rum Lime Films Production
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