Home at Last

Faith-based partnership brings affordable housing to blighted Miami neighborhood
April 1, 2007

It was a long wait, but the dream of home ownership is reality today in one of Miami's most neglected neighborhoods, thanks to a local Episcopal Church and its community partners.


Overtown, a place legitimately called blighted for decades, where 90 percent of residents could barely afford even rent, now is home to 80 two-story, three- and four-bedroom single-family homes. The Villas of St. Agnes, named after historic St. Agnes Episcopal Church, opened last year.

The pastel-colored houses with shady porches and neat yards, gardens and trees, are a bright spot in a county with little affordable housing.

A complex faith-based public and private partnership involving the church and its St. Agnes-Rainbow Village Community Development Corporation drew together the Miami-Dade Housing Finance Authority, the Miami-Dade Affordable Housing foundation, the Empowerment Zone Trust, Bank of America, the Office of Community and Economic Development, the SURTAX program, the Knight Foundation, Metro-Miami Action Plan and local lenders.

The dream's realization was long in coming and frequently frustrating, says the Rev. Canon Richard Marquess-Barry, rector of St. Agnes, but "we've achieved what we wanted ... a multiracial, multi-economic base community. We have attorneys, college professors, barbers ..."

Most residents are first-time homebuyers who took two years of classes, held at St. Agnes, to prepare to apply for and manage a mortgage. "We talked them through the process," says Amelia Gowdy of the Housing Finance Authority, which provided the education.

Some needed to repair their credit, and some low-income buyers took advantage of special restricted savings accounts that let them deposit as little as $20 per month toward down payment and closing costs, with the promise of a one-to-one match up to $5,000.

The purchase prices of the homes range from $95,000 to $125,000. Mortgages are subsidized by both public and private sources so that no monthly payment exceeds $800. Close to 70 percent of the buyers are people with "low" or "very low" income.

"Fr. Barry was the conduit," says Gowdy. "He made sure the kind of people we're talking about got in."

Cynthia Muselaire is one of them. She was a temporary clerical employee in 2003 when she first heard about the Villas. Living with family and eager to own a home, she joined the "homeowners club" and attended classes. Muselaire now owns her home and she has a new job as an administrative officer at the Housing Finance Authority. For the past year, she has counseled other Villas buyers.

Dedria Davis-Lindsay and her husband, Rudy Lindsay, live with their adult daughter and grandson (another daughter is away at college) in a four-bedroom house in the Villas. The kitchen has a dishwasher; a washer and dryer are tucked behind louvered doors on the second floor.

Davis-Lindsay taps the window on the front porch. "Wind-resistant glass," she says. "And the roof's metal."

The houses were built with hurricane protection -- and the busy lives of working families -- in mind, Barry says. "I wanted every home to have everything I have in my home."

Davis-Lindsay and her family had been paying more than $1,100 per month in rent for a Section 8 house in which one of the bedrooms was so badly damaged by Hurricane Wilma that it was unusable.

"When I sat down and started signing the papers [for the mortgage], I started to cry -- I had been afraid to allow myself to get happy," she says. "This is such a blessing!"

The Villas are only a beginning, Barry says. He is asking the county for a grant to buy property in Liberty City, another historic but neglected black neighborhood north of downtown Miami, to build another 100 homes.

-- Mary W. Cox is director of communications for the Diocese of Southeast Florida.