Saving Overtown’s “Little Oasis”

Lois RigbyLois Rigby has lived in Overtown’s Town Park Village for two decades, but long before the HUD complex opened in 1971, she remembers the little shotgun houses that occupied the neighborhood when her grandmother lived there.

Back then, you could walk to the store and get all the groceries you needed for $30, and when the circus came to Miami, children gathered along Overtown’s streets to watch the elephants parade past. Black nightclubs welcomed celebrities like Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and Aretha Franklin.

“You couldn’t walk down Second Avenue unless you were dressed,” Rigby recalls.

Her memories reveal a deep connection rooted in a simple fact: Overtown is the only home she’s ever known.

“I don’t want to leave from here until I’ll be in a pine box,” Rigby says, and she means it.

Rigby’s loyalty to her community has withstood riots, hurricanes, the disruption of I-95 cutting right through Overtown in the late ’60s, and more recently a fiery explosion that resulted in the leveling of one building in her housing complex and the boarding up of another.

Although it had nothing to do with the poor maintenance of the housing complex, the 2007 explosion, in which four children received second- and third-degree burns, brought more heat down on Town Park Village, which had already failed its U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) inspection more than once.

Behind on its mortgage payments to the tune of $800,000, Town Park Village was about to get shut down by HUD, which had created the complex at the height of the urban revitalization movement with the goal of making it a tenant-run cooperative.

That worked for a time, but as integration opened the doors of opportunity all over Miami, many of Overtown’s professionals, business owners and community leaders left. The composition of the Town Park Village board changed, and gradually responsibility for the operation of the complex fell more into the hands of private, for-profit management companies that came and went.

Under the most recent of these companies, the chief order of business became neglect. Payments were collected from residents, none of whom knew where their money was going. Utility bills that were the responsibility of management went unpaid. The buildings, which had gone nearly 40 years with no rehabilitation, fell further into disrepair. HUD stopped receiving mortgage payments. Residents’ requests to management for bank statements went unanswered.

With eviction looming for the families and senior citizens residing in the 170 units of Town Park Village, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a national nonprofit that uses corporate, government and private support to further community development efforts, went to HUD with a plan to revitalize Town Park Village and convert it from a limited equity co-op to a condominium form of ownership. This would enable residents, who were more like renters under the existing arrangement, to build equity in their homes and have more of a stake in the survival of their neighborhood.

But to do that, Town Park Village would need a lawyer.

Meanwhile, a short distance away on Biscayne Boulevard, Shahrzad Emami was settling into her new job as a staff attorney at Legal Services of Greater Miami Inc. (LSGMI), where she’d been hired using funds from The Florida Bar Foundation through its new Affordable Housing Advocacy Project Grant Program.

LISC approached LSGMI, and in June 2008, Emami started working on the case and serving as the attorney for the Town Park Village board of directors. With Emami’s counsel, change happened fast.

First, the property management company: gone. Also out was the company that managed the laundry facility, where most of the machines were broken and a leaky water heater often flooded the floor.

Next, the HUD mortgage: paid down to $100,000.

And finally, after a series of evening meetings Emami held with residents to educate them about their ownership options: a 75-5 vote of residents in favor of converting to condominium ownership.

Soon, the complex will undergo a complete renovation, with new plumbing, electrical and flooring, remodeled kitchens and the like. Many partners are involved, including Neighborhood Housing Services of South Florida, which is providing homeownership training and possibly individual mortgage assistance, and Carrfour Supportive Housing, a nonprofit corporation whose subsidiary, Crossroads, is serving as the new property management company. Carrfour is also acting as the project manager to assist with the condominium conversion and rehab process.

Emami is helping make sure the project maintains the composition of the community. Residents lacking the income usually required to become homeowners will receive grants so that no one is left out.

Dana Milson, a teacher at Miami Norland High School and member of the Town Park Village board, believes the complex is on its way to regaining the stature it once held in Overtown.

“From the beginning when the complex opened in 1971, when it was brand new, everyone who lived in Overtown wanted to live here,” Milson said. “With the condo conversion I think it will be that way again the little oasis.”

She points out that as the gateway to Miami — the airport, downtown, the beaches — Overtown is looking at a bright future.

“It’s a plus to have Shahr on board because having an attorney and legal services kind of keeps the contractors who are not really worthy at bay,” Milson said. “Had we not had an attorney, we’d still have the sharks over here just eating us up.”

Fellow resident Juanita Lester agrees.

“Without her leading us, we might not have had the chance of going into the [condo] conversion,” Lester said. “The legal counseling from her keeps us from getting into trouble later.”

As president of the Senior Residents’ Task Force, Lester has helped organize resident fundraisers to pay for things like security cameras and floodlights for the common areas of the complex. The group, which became incorporated with Emami’s help, holds yard sales and does — as Lester jokes — “anything that’s legal” to generate resources to improve the neighborhood.

A fellow member of the task force, Rigby says she feels the change coming to Town Park Village.

“Everything is moving in the right direction,” Rigby said. “After all these years, I’ll finally have something that I can say, ‘This is mine.’ ”

The story of Town Park Village’s rebirth is far from over, but Emami will continue representing the residents along the way.

“The kind of law we do is not a one step, and in and out, you’re done,” Emami said. “You’ve got to see it through.”