Gentrification and displacement of long-time families are threatening communities across the United States. It is occurring in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Chicago and Tennessee, among other places. Working families and communities of color have been hit hardest, leaving supportive neighborhoods they’ve called home for generations.
Among the places most affected: Miami’s Little Haiti, the oldest and largest Haitian community in the U.S. Earlier in 2018, Marguerite Casey Foundation sat down with one of the region’s grassroots leaders to talk about this community – founded by people forced from their homeland – and how families are addressing the need for affordable housing, solutions and peace of mind.
Q: Why is Little Haiti important in the U.S.?
When Haitian refugees were coming en masse in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they settled in Little Haiti. It was a very depressed and blighted area. Out of sheer resilience, determination and courage, these refugees turned this space into a thriving, culturally diverse neighborhood.
This wasn’t easy. They had to find ways to look for schools for their children and find employment. They did not speak the language. They were able to build Little Haiti. People come from all around the world to see the story of Black immigrants who tried to come in en masse.
After they came in, they were detained in what many think was a complete denial of their rights of due process. We had to be on the streets every day, fighting for the release of the refugees.
Everywhere you turn, you see history, you see art, you see culture. When people come, they see the story of immigrants, who created this jewel of a neighborhood. This shows that disenfranchised people, when they are united, when they have the will, they can succeed and prevail.
Q: This sounds like a story of people wanting to be together.
This is a story of immigrant families coming into a neighborhood and fighting to stand together, to live free of fear in a safe place.
Q: What issues does Little Haiti face in 2018?
The main issue is gentrification. Little Haiti is believed to be one of the fastest gentrified areas in the U.S. today.
We thought it started slowly. But by the time we realized it, it was well on its way. We are in the last leg of gentrification, where developers basically come with a lot cash. We call them the “cash-empowered” developers, with their suitcases full of cash.
Not necessarily buying to build and then create jobs or units for the residents. But, a lot of them are buying property and just letting them sit there. That has resulted in a hike in rent.
So, renters are moving out. Families are divided. Those who are still in their homes are under a psychological war to sell.
Some of them come to us at FANM and they say: ‘I am scared for my family. What if they come and tear my house down?’
The fear is real. The pressure to sell is real. As a result of gentrification, Little Haiti is shrinking.
Q: Why are developers so interested in Little Haiti?
In the past, we used to think it was because we can’t build the west anymore, that if we go further west you’ll run into the swamps.
We used to think that it was the proximity of Little Haiti to downtown, to Miami International Airport and Fort Lauderdale airport. And close to the beach.
But we found out, less than two years ago, that Little Haiti is considered to be part of original land. That means, it’s located on a higher altitude. It doesn’t get flooded as often as Miami Beach. That’s why, in some ways, Little Haiti is the new South Beach. …People are leaving Miami Beach, which according to reports and researchers, will be under water in the next 30 years.
Little Haiti is a prized area. It is sought after from developers from China, Venezuela, Chile, from many places.
Q: Has community organizing helped residents?
We once had 100 families who were displaced from a mobile home park. The developer was living in China. We had to rally because they wanted them out in six months. They didn’t want to compensate them for their mobile homes.
They wanted to give residents each $1,500 in the middle of the school year of February 2016. We organized them. People were able to stay until July 2017. Each of them also got at least $10,000, and we were able to get them four months free rent. We helped most of them find housing after they were forced out. Some families lived there for 30 years.
Q: You’ve said people left Haiti to find peace and harmony. Now you have this new type of displacement, through economic pressure.
We believe that if you built it, out of sweat and blood and sacrifices, you deserve to live in it. It’s not that we’re against development. But, we’re for development that is inclusive.
Q: Are developers open to talking with you and other community members?
They’re talking to us after their plans are finished. Our position is that we should be at the table at the beginning. We encourage developers to respect the community, where families are raising their children.
Q: How do you ensure that the community is at the table from the start?
We’re organizing our members around rent control. We’re raising our voices.
Despite the challenges and roadblocks, we’re organizing around community land trust. That idea will allow us to take control of some of the land in Little Haiti. Instead of the city selling it to developers, the land would be turned over to the community. We would organize to have our own developers build them. The homes would be accessible. There would be a board. It would be like a cooperative.
The members would have access to affordable housing. They would not be able to sell because the land would belong to the community. The goal is to keep the rent accessible to the residents.
Q: So, what’s it like being in the middle of this?
It’s painful. We were forced out of our country because of policies that pushed people from the land.
We cannot let people divide our families. If we, in America, believe in family values, then we need to do whatever we can to keep families together.