What a way to start !
The genesis of Wind & Rain was an unfortunate incident that occurred on March 3, 1994--my house was burglarized. I live in the "North Grove," a moderately affluent section of Miami which is, conservatively, 99% white. This would be surprising in a lot of places, but not Miami, one of the most de facto segregated places in America (although in many other ways a veritable polyglot city). A light blue Toyota was seen by a neighbor that was parked in front of my house. The police who investigated said there had been other reports of the same vehicle, driven by the proverbial "young black male", seen cruising the neighborhood and thought to be from the "Black Grove." Like anyone else living in the "North Grove" or the "South Grove", I knew the "Black Grove" (also known as the West Grove) to mean that relatively small area--approximately 60 residential blocks-- bounded by US 1 and Bird Road (SW 40th St.) on the Northwest, McDonald Street (SW 32d Avenue) on the East, and Marler Street on the South.
The only other thing I "knew" about it was that you weren't ever supposed to stray from the two main thoroughfares through it, being Grand Avenue and Douglas Road, and that if you ever got stopped by the traffic light at the intersection of those two streets, to be on the lookout for having your windshield "bricked."
Open your eyes and see
Officer Tom Braga, who I later learned was the founder of a Roller Hockey Youth League for kids in the West Grove, took me in his patrol car and gave me my first tour of this nearby part of my community that I had never bothered to learn anything about or even drive through. We never saw the blue Toyota, but what I did see took a few days to register on my consciousness. The first thing that struck me, as both a Groveite and real estate professional, was the number of vacant lots in the West Grove.
I roughly had seen an average of four vacant lots per block--over 200 of them! In the North and South Groves put together I doubted there were more than 50 vacant lots remaining, with most of those being attached as "side yards" to existing homes. This paucity of vacant lots in the "white grove" was due, I knew, to that real estate axiom "Location, Location, Location."
But the "Black Grove" shared the same location. So that was the most obvious revelation for me. But also, in my cruise with Officer Braga, I had absorbed first hand a glimmer of understanding of what I had been reading about and thinking about off and on most of my life: the "cause" of America's black/white Achilles heel. I had seen modest but neat single family homes on streets just like mine, perhaps needing paint or a bit more landscaping, but obviously cared for. And then I would turn a corner and see mounds of trash, abandoned vehicles and junk, denuded "greenways" and -- government owned or subsidized multi-family apartment buildings.
The wheels start turning
Over the next couple of weeks I thought about the Black Grove constantly. I refined my thinking by writing out Parts I, II and III of "Proposal for West Coconut Grove." I spent hours driving up and down all of the streets in the West Grove, getting to know the neighborhood. I spoke with friends and chewed the concept over and over. And I picked a name for the corporation I had decided to form to build houses for first time homebuyers in the West Grove. I looked in Bartlet's Familiar Quotations under "Home" and found a stanza from "An Old Woman of the Roads" by an Irish poet named Padraic Colum:
It's amazing the things that catch your eye when you're looking. In the newspaper I spotted a small ad placed by a North Miami real estate company advertizing "HUD Foreclosures." One of the dozens of properties listed was a vacant lot at 3416 Frow Avenue in the West Grove. That day I submitted a sealed bid for the "minimum" amount of $6,300 and four weeks later closed on the lot.
"But I don't want to be a slumlord"
Meanwhile. I went to the City of Miami and met with Herb Bailey, head of the City's Housing Department, and someone whom I'd met briefly before. I explained to him that I wanted to build houses for first-time homeowners in the West Grove and asked what programs the City had that might help me do this. To my utter amazement, he said that the only program the City had for for-profit enterprises such as mine was a low interest loan program to help me renovate and rent existing houses. I said, half joking, "You mean the City will help me become a slumlord but not help me put renters into homeownership?"
Now Herb Bailey is a very smart man, and definitely not your typical bureaucrat. He then amazed me a second time by saying "Maybe the City can create a program to do what you propose." Keep in mind that at this point I had never built a dog house, much less a single family home. The upshot of this meeting, and several others with Jeff Hepburn and Alfredo Duran of Bailey's staff, was that a gameplan was created whereby Wind & Rain would build a "spec" house on the Frow Avenue lot in conjunction with the Coconut Grove Local Development Corporation, and the City would help the homeowner, hopefully to be found and qualified by the LDC, by supplying a "soft" low interest second mortgage using Federal "HOME" funds allocated to the City.
...Add one Architect, one Contractor and stirSo now I had a buildable lot, and a way of finding a homebuyer and getting that homebuyer financed. I also had a general contractor to build the house, namely Mario Benitez, a Cuban born and very experienced builder who had built some warehouses for a client of mine several years before and who I knew I could trust. I also knew who I was going to use to design my "prototype" Wind & Rain house: Marilyn Avery.
Marilyn I had met at the Miami Rowing Club years before. She had been working as a designer at the well known architectural firm of Duany-Plater Zyberk, and having just gotten her own license, had started her own small firm called Rock Soup, after the French nursery story about making something wonderful starting out with practically nothing. It seemed like a good fit--a novice homebuilder, an idealistic motivated architect, and a very experienced general contractor. All that was needed now was a bank to lend the construction money to this fledgling outfit.
Banks and the "Toothless Tiger"
I knew from general reading of business publications that banks more than ever before were interested in making loans in minority areas. This was due to the federal Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, commonly known as the CRA. When the CRA was first passed, it had the reputation of a "toothless tiger" because there were no fines imposed on banks that failed to serve their "entire service communities", (meaning minority areas, and in particular African-American communities), which Congress had determined had largely been "red lined" in the past.
For its first few years the CRA was mostly ignored by the banking community. Then the Savings & Loan crisis hit in the late 80's, and all banks, not just the S&L's, were in deep trouble. From the Bank of New England to Southeast Bank and Centrust in Miami, many banks were on or over the brink of insolvency. And those that were relatively healthy saw incredible opportunities to expand their customer bases many times over at bargain basement prices by picking up those that were in trouble.
Bank mergers and takeovers came into fashion with tremendous profits to be made by all involved, provided the federal Banking Commission approved the mergers and takeovers. And what did the Commission use as a guideline for granting or withholding its approval? Why, the toothless tiger--the CRA. All at once, whether a bank had been serving its entire service community became crucially important. If you didn't have enough CRA brownie points, you didn't get approved to take-over or be taken-over.
Thanks to the CRA, I would find an open door at practically every bank in town whenever I got my first house built--they all wanted the "end loan" to the new homeowner, which would be in first position in front of the City's "soft" second mortgage loan, so called because it would bear all the risk in event of default, and in some cases was partially or wholly forgivable. But which bank would step up to the plate to do the construction loan to build the house?
That turned out to be a tougher question because, never having built a house before, not to mention a house in a neighborhood which hadn't seen a new "spec" house built in over thirty years, Wind & Rain definitely looked like a risky business. Two people were instrumental in helping me over this hump. The first was David Alexander, Chief Executive Officer of the Coconut Grove Local Development Corporation.
A Jamaican ally
David Alexander, 47, is a front line combat veteran of the battle to make the West Grove into an economically successful community of predominantly African-American homeowners. Jamaican born and New York City College educated, he is smart, eloquent, street savvy and visionary. As the head of the CGLDC, the federally and municipally funded Community Development Center ("CDC") for the West Grove, David spent fourteen years there renovating and building homes, and laying the groundwork for the commercial redevelopment of Grand Avenue. His small but dedicated staff, and a core of new homeowners, all of whom think he walks on water, assisted him. He also has a lengthy list of West Groveites of all economic levels who hate him and believe he is selling the Grove out to "white developers." I didn't know it at the time, but it took no small amount of courage for David Alexander to help me at all, much more to go out of his way to help me at every opportunity.
Part of Herb Bailey's plan for creating a new program to accommodate Wind & Rain involved me creating an informal joint venture with the CGLDC. So down I went to the LDC's cramped offices in a storefront on Grand Avenue, where while waiting to meet Mr. Alexander for the first time I was able to watch a half dozen or so drug deals going on directly across the street from the LDC.
When David arrived and I pointed this out, David replied to the effect that there were lots of reasons for the open drug dealing, one of which was that the community as a whole was divided as to the need, or even the benefit, of getting rid of it. I remembered that it was the West Grove where tennis star Jennifer Capriati had bought her drugs. However, I was soon to learn that David himself was not divided on the issue--he was the driving force a year later in getting a federal demonstration grant to rid the West Grove of drug dealers.
As I explained what Wind & Rain was proposing to do, David listened without commenting (something I learned is normally hard for him to do) before saying that if I was determined to go ahead, he would help me every way he could, but warned me not to underestimate the resistance and suspicion that I as both an outsider and a "white developer" would encounter from the community.
The resistance would come because, as he himself had found in developing two dozen new houses known as "Grove Point", any change would be viewed as inviting more change, and a significant number of locals thought change of any kind would hasten "gentrification." The suspicion would come from the fact that, until I had actually built and sold several houses to local renters as I said I would, I would be just another white outsider making promises that I wouldn't keep--plus, as he said with genuine good humor, I would be in partnership with David Alexander, which would be proof enough for a lot of folks.
David then proceeded to give me the names and phone numbers of bank officers at several banks who had expressed interest in making construction loans in the West Grove. He also called Dr. David White, President of the West Grove Homeowners and Tenants Association, and introduced me. Over the next months he consistently went out of his way to introduce me to the leaders of the West Grove (not all of whom were supporters of his), as well as going down to Herb Bailey's office with me to move "the Plan" along.
An experienced partner
The second person who helped me find my first construction loan was Al Arnason, a retired banker and "work-out specialist" from the days of the S & L disaster. I met Al at a seminar for federal Section 203 K loans, where at the "questions and answers" portion of the seminar it was immediately obvious that he knew much more than the seminar leader. While neither one of us was too interested in the 203 K program, we both thought that the time for single family homeownership was now, and that we could build a lot of single family homes for people who never before had a chance to own one. Here was a guy who knew banking and bankers inside and out. Within a week, I had proposed to Al that he become a 50/50 partner in Wind & Rain.
As it turned out, I ended up being partners with Al's youngest son, Brian. And for a time the partnership went well. Brian and I each took out personal credit lines from First Union Bank to finance the working drawings, permit and impact fees for the first house on the HUD lot. Brian and Al continued to work their primary occupation as mortgage brokers in Homestead, just as I continued to work my consulting job as the exclusive real estate broker for Miami-Dade Community College. Al's experience definitely gave Brian and me the confidence to brazenly ask Northern Trust Bank (one of David Alexander's leads) for a $55,000 construction loan, to which Northern Trust said "Yes". Wind & Rain was on its way.
When Brian Arnason and I eventually went our separate paths after building and selling three houses, it was a painful recognition that good partnerships are as much work to keep together as good marriages. The distance to Homestead was a part of the breakup. Lack of communication was another. Personality wise, I think I would have been a better fit with Al. One thing I know, though, is that Al Arnason provided Wind & Rain with a confidence and a thick enough veneer of development and banking expertise to get Wind & Rain its first construction loan. That was a lot.
Please, Lord, Permit the work to begin!
With the construction loan in place (actually, Northern Trust set it up like a credit line secured by the HUD lot and our personal guarantees) Wind & Rain went to work on commencing 3416 Frow Avenue. We still needed two things--a building permit and a qualified buyer. I undertook to get the first and Brian, together with the CGLDC, to get the second.
If anyone had ever told me how many scores of hours it would take me to pull that first building permit, I might have been tempted to chuck the whole idea, even with Winston Churchill's "Never give up!" etched into my brain since childhood. It is simply inconceivable how remote, unfriendly, illogical and bureaucratic Miami's Building and Zoning Department had allowed itself to become over years and years of nepotism, corruption and simple mismanagement.
Now, after "Operation Greenpalm" resulted in the conviction of Commissioner Miller Dawkins for bribery , and the guilty plea of City Manager Cesar Odio to obstruction of justice charges, the City of Miami has been forced by the fiscal crisis unearthed by those events to make drastic changes: to become more efficient and to make its citizens happier with the way they are treated. But in 1995, when I was trying to get a permit to build 3416 Frow Avenue, the process seemed like swimming through quicksand with arm and leg weights.
There were no written guidelines, no signs saying "go there next"; no persons in charge of dispensing information, no way of getting feedback other than to have your plans cryptically rejected by the "plans examiners" in Building, Zoning, Public Works, Electrical, Plumbing, and Mechanical who would often do so using numerical codes with no further explanations.
To show frustration with any of these plans examiners would, it was said, more than likely submit the complainer to having his or her plans shoved to the bottom of the stack. The tracking system, if there was one, was not subject to public review--your plans came back out of the belly of the Beast when they came out, and then if there were any changes on any of the pages, those pages had to be corrected by the architect and resubmitted again--and again-- on a clean blueprint. Unless, of course, you knew the examiner or were a "friend of City Hall."
Because the architect could not reach the examiners by phone, you would have to pay for your architect to come down to the Building and Zoning Department and wait in the same interminable lines, where you as a reasonably intelligent and willing-to-learn citizen had thought you would wait so that a helpful public servant could inform you what the "needed" changes were so you could then inform the architect without having to pay for her "waiting time."
It seemed instead like the worst kind of fraternity hazing: just enough method to the madness to keep you plugging away, hoping that eventually the tormentors would see that you'd suffered enough to reward you with a permit. It certainly did not look or feel like government working with the taxpaying public to assure the safety and quality of new construction. I kept hearing Ross Perot saying "Remember, they work for us, not the other way 'round."
Time is Money
Now I know a lot of the problem was my not "knowing the ropes," and that if I'd just paid my architect Marilyn Avery to do all the permitting I might have cut the time in half. But I believe Marilyn, when I did get her involved, also felt like she was trapped in a Fellini movie. Besides, if Wind & Rain's goal was to prove that "affordable" houses could be built profitably, I couldn't afford the luxury of having Marilyn do what I should be able to do. If your total anticipated profit on a house is $8,000, you simply can't add more "soft costs" unless you can increase the cost of the house.
Furthermore, there are strict if unstated caps on the amount which a builder can charge for his house if his target market requires the buyer to get a subsidized mortgage to afford it. It's not like building a $400,000 luxury home on a "cost plus 10%" where you can easily bury (or absorb) another thousand or two. Every penny counts. But government makes absolutely no allowance for this when it comes to permitting, even though the City and County Commissioners say they are all for private enterprise building affordable homes.
After a dozen houses permitted and built, I can now say I've gotten better, and I can also say that the City of Miami's Building and Zoning Department has also gotten better, even if only because someone has told the B&Z personnel that there are a substantial number of taxpayers who support a referendum to abolish the City (and their jobs) altogether. In all fairness, I think the change in attitude stems from more than that. I think that most of the employees there have seen some of the deadwood get fired and are hopeful that effort, not croneyism, will be the basis of promotions in the future.
A hard landing on "soft" costs
My surprises didn't end with the City of Miami. Part of the permitting process required me to find out about--and pay--more "soft costs" than I ever would have thought possible, given that I was building"in-fill" housing in perhaps Miami's oldest neighborhood. The Dade County Impact Fee Department and Water and Sewer Department also seem to have orders to keep affordable housing from being too affordable.
Here's how it works. The first time my building permit application was rejected, I learned that the Plumbing Section required two letters to be attached to the plans: a letter from the Department of Environmental Regulation and Management (DERM) located downtown stating that the house I was building was on a street with adequate sanitary sewer capacity, and a letter from the Metro-Dade County Water and Sewer Department (WASD) located in Coral Gables that there was adequate water supply to the site.
Logical enough except that it took me two trips to find out that I had to go to DERM first and submit an application there that took a week to produce the desired "DERM letter". (I have no problem with any government organization having "procedures" that must be followed, but I did find it strange and annoying that nowhere was there a set of directions or a "flow chart" outlining what was to be done first, and what second, etc., to minimize time and aggravation.) Then I took the DERM letter back to WASD and applied for a "Plumbing Section letter", attaching the DERM letter.
The "New Business" Section at WASD informed me that the water supply line was less than the required minimum 4" in diameter, and therefore I would have to bring a new 8" line to the site from the nearest conforming water main at my expense. When I protested that this would bust my budget and prohibit building the house altogether, I was told that I could apply for the "Mains Program."
The Mains Progam is a Dade County program that attempts to ameliorate the cost to developers of building in neighborhoods with substandard water supply lines. It is funded annually by the Dade County Commission and doled out on a "first come first served" basis until depleted, which then means you have to wait until the next year's allocation comes around. The Program allows you, the Builder, to pay a proportional share of the cost of bringing in a new water line. For example, if a new 500 ft. of water main is required to reach your site, and your proposed house has 50 linear ft. of street frontage, then you make an "up front" payment to WASD of 1/10th the cost of the new line and then you get your "Plumbing Section letter".
It didn't matter that all of the other houses on the street were connected to a substandard line--I would not be allowed to connect because of "fire safety" reasons. Again, on the surface, this would seem logical enough, except that, once I paid, I would be allowed to hook my house up to the old substandard line until the new one was built, which might take a year or two I was told. I and my new homeowner would just have to avoid having a fire until then. Still, the Mains Program was far better than nothing and I was glad--and lucky--to get my Plumbing Section letter.
How can there be Impact Fees in Miami's oldest neighborhood?
Now I drove back to the new Stephen P. Clark Center in downtown Miami to see the County's Impact Fee Section for what I hoped would be a waiver of any Impact Fees. I knew the County charged up-front fees to developers out paving the Everglades to defray the cost of meeting new demands for schools and roads and police and fire stations in previously undeveloped areas. But here I was, building in the oldest section of Miami, and the roads, curbs, gutters, schools, fire and police stations were in place already. I was taking a vacant lot and putting it back on the tax rolls with, hopefully, a proud brand new homeowner who had just joined the middle class. Surely I wouldn't have to pay Impact Fees?
Well, I wasn't entirely wrong. I would only be charged $2,200 in a non-refundable up-front School Impact Fee, plus a "maybe refundable" $1,100 in Road Impact Fee, depending on the "Income Level" of the family to whom I sold the house. If the family was poor enough, the Road fee could be refunded after I sold the house, if my fully documented refund application was approved. In the meantime, I would have to bump the price of the house by $3,300 to the homebuyer, who now had to have more income, not less, in order to be able to qualify to buy the house in the first place.
There was definitely something wrong with this picture. Nevertheless, I knew "you can't fight City Hall" so I paid the $3,300 and got my plans stamped "Impact Fee Paid." I could now go back to the Building and Zoning Department and resubmit my new clean blueprints with all the bells and whistles attached and hope for the best. And some time after that I did indeed get a building permit for the first Wind & Rain house. It had taken three months of what seemed like almost constant effort.
Looking back over those months, I have to admit that my own temperament didn't help. I am by nature impatient and prone to look at bureaucracy in any form with a chip on my shoulder from the get-go. In truth, for every person who seemed to be purposely rude or unhelpful, there were others who, despite piles of work on their desks, went out of their way to assist me. They know who they are, and I have thanked them personally. Still, I have detailed all of my frustration with "the system" because it has to get better, be much more a co-operative effort, if we as a society are going to have private enterprise build affordable housing for homeownership . Time is money, and if your time is unnecessarily expended, then you have to add the cost of that time to the house that you are building. And every dollar that is added to that cost deletes that many more potential homebuyers from the market altogether, making the "rent trap" a permanent fixture in their lives when it doesn't need to be.
The "Qualified Buyer"
Meanwhile, while all this was going on, Brian Arnason was trying to get us a "qualified" buyer. The way the program Herb Bailey and his staff had created for us worked was this: David Alexander and his staff at the CGLDC would supply us with the name of a potential homebuyer and run a preliminary credit check. If the prospect's total family income, including paycheck, alimony and child support, pensions and disability payments, AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) payments, tips, and other verifiable sources of income was in excess of $18,000 per year, and the family didn't have "too many" bad debts or too much existing credit card debt, Brian would work with that prospect to see if he could get them qualified for two mortgages, a first mortgage from Northern Trust Bank, and a "soft" second mortgage from the City of Miami, totalling $75,000.
Brian had backed $75,000 out of what we thought we could charge for the house--$77,900-- and still make a profit. Mario had told us with confidence born of experience that he could build the house for a "hard cost" of $52,000, and the lot had cost us $6,300. Architect and engineering fees, building permit fees, interest, and other anticipated "soft costs" we had budgeted for under $10,000, including a modest contingency reserve. So even eating the unexpected Impact Fees and Mains Program expenses, we still thought,with any luck, we could clear $6,000 when the house sold.
The key to the lock: the "Soft 2nd" mortgage
What made Brian's job difficult was that he was shooting at a moving target. The "soft" second mortage was what made the whole financing scheme work, and the exact amount of that mortgage and the rate of interest it would bear wouldn't be known until the City's Loan Committee had actually approved the application. The federal "HOME" funds would be loaned to the homeowner at either 1% or 3%, with the principal amount being whatever amount was left from the $75,000 after determining the amount of the first mortgage from Northern Trust at "market rate."
If you got $50,000 from Northern Trust at 7% and $25,000 from the City at 3%, the payments of principal and interest from both loans would come to $438.05 per month. But if you got the City to loan $50,000 at 1%, so that the higher interest Northern Trust first mortgage was only $25,000, then the monthly payment for principal and interest from both mortgages dropped to $327.15 per month.
The "30% Rule"
Either one was a "good deal" but the $110 per month difference between the two turned out to be of huge importance. Why? Because of the "Thirty PerCent Rule" which required that the homeowner's total monthly payment for housing, including principal, interest AND taxes and insurance ("PITI"), could not exceed 30% of the prospect's total monthly income.
Once you included Real Estate tax escrow at $120 per month, and post-Hurricane Andrew insurance escrow at $110 per month, then the total payment of PITI would be either $668.05 per month, or $557.15 per month, depending on which mortgage "package" was approved. That translated into the family yearly income requirement being either as low as $22,286 annually, or as high as $26,722 annually.. That's a $4,436 difference, or $370 per month, or $85 per week. For the "low to moderate" income people for whom the HOME funds were legislatively created, that can be the difference between owning a home and staying a renter all your life. For someone making $10 per hour, or $20,800 per year, a 20% raise to $12 per hour, only raises the annual income to $24,960, which is less than the $4,436 difference in the two mortgage "packages."
On the 90 yard line
The house was nearing completion when Brian announced we had a qualified Buyer. I heaved a huge sigh of relief. The last thing we needed was a finished house with no one to live in it but possible vandals. As we drew nearer to getting our "CO" (the cherished Certificate of Occupancy which meant the house had passed its final inspections) with no buyer, I had already steeled myself to becoming a landlord rather than leave the house vacant. So Brian's news was most welcome--and shortlived. Within a week, the Buyer had changed her mind and backed out. Even if we'd gotten a deposit from her we would have refunded it because this house was supposed to be the first of many, not a cut and run.
Every story has its hero who arrives in the knick of time to save the day. Our's was Cheryl Ogletree, a single mother of two kids. She'd grown up in the West Grove, with relatives just behind the Frow house on the next street. A post office employee, Cheryl had a good job and her credit card debt was not excessive, which meant that all her other credit payments, when added to her PITI mortgage payment, did not exceed 36% of her total income (another requirement of the "HOME" program). She liked the house and didn't care that the colors we'd already painted it were not the ones she herself would have chosen. She believed in homeownership and wanted a house in the Grove. Period. She already knew about "the drug problem" next door. Cheryl, all 5 ft. 2 in. of her, said "I'll handle it."
Brian quickly got Cheryl qualified at Northern Trust Bank and then took her to Silvia Diaz, in Jeff Hepburn's City Housing Redevelopment Department, for approval for the "soft" second mortgage. At this point, we still didn't know what "mix" of mortgage amounts the City would approve. Silvia, one of the warmest, most caring people on the City payroll, walked us all through the paperwork to get ready for the Loan Committee. When the Committee met a week or so later, Cheryl was approved for a 3% second mortgage for almost the amount we had hoped. Cheryl signed the commitment letter. We were still ten days away from getting the CO.
What keeps for-profit Developers awake at night
Or so we thought. There were all the final inspections to be done, Plumbing, Electrical, Mechanical, Building and , finally, Zoning. As with all the myriad inspections all the way through construction, Mario would call for each inspection and the Inspector was required to show up to make the inspection within the next 24 hours.
There were two problems with this system. First, sometimes it could take as much as four days from the time the call was made for the inspector to show. Second, if the inspection required access to the interior, either someone would have to be there all day every day or we would have to leave the front door wide open to show the Inspector that the door was open. Especially with the house almost completed, this was, to say the least, nerve wracking. It would only take five minutes for someone to kick in all the doors and drywall in the house, and to haul away the water heater. We'd already decided not to install the stove or refrigerator until after Cheryl had moved in; and we'd paid the City's $100 extortionary "temporary CO" fee which allowed us to install the air conditioning compressor after occupancy. Still, we were worried because, believe it or not, we hadn't been able to find any insurance company willing to insure a vacant house built by a company with no track record.
Just a little bit longer
Meanwhile, Brian and I were trying to arrange a grand "ribbon cutting" ceremony to celebrate turning our first key over to Cheryl Ogletree. This meant invitations, and press releases, and most of all a date when we'd be certain the house would be done and the power turned on. FP&L informed us that they could not turn on the power until the City had officially issued the CO, and that it would take several days from the date the City notified them to get a crew out to disconnect the temporary power (used during construction) and connect the house. Again, no amount of pleading, to either the City or FP & L, that we weren't insured and couldn't afford either a security guard or Mario Benitez to hang around the house doing nothing but waiting, got us any slack. So we picked a date and sent out the invitations.
I asked the venerable West Grove civic activist, the late Esther Mae Armbrister, if she would do us all the honor of cutting the ribbon. No fan of David Alexander's, who was also helping host the ceremony, I thought she'd turn us down, but she didn't (now I think it was because one of my staunchest allies in the West Grove, City N.E.T. Administrator Thelma Edwards, must have somehow convinced her to do it).
We also asked lots of local dignitaries, including City Mayor Steve Clark and all five City Commissioners, both by written invitation and follow-up phone calls. The invitations said Wind & Rain and the Coconut Grove Local Development Corporation were inviting them to celebrate "...the completion of the first single family house built for homeownership and developed 'on spec' by private enterprise in West Coconut Grove in 30 years!" How could they not come?
A little ray of sunshine, a lot of hope
April 11, 1995 dawned bright and clear after a night of rain. Brian and I had divvied up the duties of delivering refreshments and chairs to the house, and tying the wide red satin ribbon across the opening to the big front porch which represents Wind & Rain's (and Marilyn Avery's) statement about building neighborhoods. I drove up to the house that morning and was struck dumb with a mix of emotions that I can't begin to describe. There was our first house, all polished and painted and...missing half the front yard! Someone during the night had carted away all of the newly laid sod from the left front side of the house. Too late to get more. We set up the chairs in the mud and waited.
It was a great turnout, too. A score or so of West Groveites and friends and supporters of the CGLDC were there. David White, I think And of course, Cheryl and her family and friends. Herb Bailey, Jeff Hepburn, Alfredo Duran and Silvia Diaz from the City. Thelma Edwards brought Mrs. Armbrister to do the honors. But not the Mayor or one City Commissioner. I might have allowed them the excuse that they were busy, until the busiest woman in all of Dade County appeared. Anita Bock, chief of HRS District VII stayed for over an hour and graciously spoke about what she thought homeownership could do for one of the poorest HRS Districts in the State of Florida.
Launching families into the middle class
Since that day Wind & Rain has built eleven more homes for first time homeowners. There's a nurse's assistant, and her three children at 3618 Charles Avenue. A cook at GreenStreets restaurant in the central Grove, owns 3792 Frow Avenue along with her oldest son Paul, who I helped get a carpenter's job to help his mother qualify for the purchase. My first "two parent" family and their two children live at 3658 Oak Avenue. The husband works two jobs, as a restaurant worker and as a maintenance man. A young single woman bought the house at 3399 William Avenue on a clerical worker's salary. A retired roofer who had rented his entire working life now tends a vegetable garden at his home at 3152 Plaza Stree. Our first 4BR/2BA model, is under a "lease with purchase option" contract to a security guard and his family who had had some credit problems in the past. Two more houses were sold to a construction worker and his family, and to a surgical assistant, and two more are just about to close with a school teacher and a school board clerk.
Each house has been an adventure in its own way, with good days and bad. Wind & Rain has made an acceptable profit on all but one, and the time required for each, start to finish, has dimished somewhat. Somehow I think the spirit of William J. Levitt, the "inventor" of the subdivision and of the affordable home for WW II veterans, is observing with satisfaction that the great engine of private enterprise is trying, finally, to build single family homes in low to moderate income neighborhoods again, for families who might otherwise rent for the rest of their lives.