West of the Grove, Left out of International Human Rights

Kiana Courtney – Nestled in the city of Miami is the neighborhood of Coconut Grove. Before the City of Miami was incorporated, Bahamians established the neighborhood, making Coconut Grove the oldest neighborhood in the City. Black Bahamians built this community and inhabited the western portion of Coconut Grove, also known as Village West or the West Grove. Today, the community is still deeply rooted in its Bahamian culture; however, these roots are in jeopardy.

The West Grove community has been facing ongoing evictions from the neighborhood.[1] One might ask why the black community that established the neighborhood lacks home ownership and faces evictions. In addition to the lack of generational wealth in black communities across the country, there are issues of assimilation and the loss of resources when the Coconut Grove neighborhood was annexed in 1925.[2] This continued with homes being torn down in the 1950s and 1960s, only to be replaced by apartments, whose owners continually fail to maintain the properties.[3] Today, the West Grove neighborhood is still fighting to sustain their community and their Bahamian culture against gentrification.

Regardless of the hurdles to generational and institutional wealth, the Bahamian community, as do all communities, has an international human right to its culture and moreover, an international human right to adequate housing. These rights are inherent in the city code and in neighborhood plans, but just do not seem to play out in practice.

Under the City’s planning and zoning code, Miami 21, Charles Avenue and Village West Island are NCD-2s.[4] A NCD is a “protective land use element that . . . will allow for the tailoring of a master plan and/or design guidelines for any specifically defined area” as designated by the code.[5] Because the area is one of Miami’s first settlements and a historical Bahamian community, the NCD-2 designation is supposed to “compliment the character of the entire community and promote the history of the Island District; and to promote its successful revitalization and restoration.”[6] Moreover, there should be “ visual compatibility among the buildings on Charles Avenue and throughout the District representing building traditions of early South Florida, the Caribbean, and the early African-American settlers.”[7] Thus, protections include restrictions on demolitions and the requirement that any new construction, additions, or major alterations are supposed to go through a waivers process and be reviewed by the Urban Development Review Board.[8] The Code also creates protections for the culture and history of Coconut Grove as a whole as an NCD-3.[9]

However, waivers to alter the culture and history of the Grove are arguably being abused.[10] One property owner bought several properties and plans to build glass houses in the middle of Charles Avenue, outraging many community members.[11] This creates a precarious problem because everyone has the right to reasonably use their property, thus raising the question of how to balance private property rights and a community’s right to its culture.[12]

Under the Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to participate in the cultural life of the community.[13] Our culture and natural heritage have universal value, so it is the duty of States to adopt policies that allow cultures to function in their communities, set up services for protection, and take appropriate “measures necessary for the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and rehabilitation of this heritage.”[14] Although the Grove is not an internationally protected site, it still deserves some protection or at least improved enforcement.

While there are several programs by the City and County that honor this culture, failing to fully protect the history and the culture of the Grove by deviating from the conservation plan can negatively impact other rights. This includes infringements on the right to adequate housing[15]. Because the people of the West Grove have been historically taken advantage of by both developers and the City, they have been historically forced out of their homes away from their heritage.

The U.N. Declaration for Human Rights also states that all people have the right to an adequate standard of living, which includes the right to adequate housing.[16] According to U.N. Habitat, the right to adequate housing means that individuals have the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity.[17] The people most often impacted tend to be racial and ethnic minorities.[18] People cannot be forcibly evicted, threatened with evictions, nor live in life or health threating conditions.[19]

In the West Grove, there are serious issues of cultural adequacy, affordability, habitability, and availability of services within this international human right. However, the right to adequate housing does not prohibit development projects, which could displace people, resulting in some issues in the Grove not necessarily covered by this right.[20] This creates a stress on how to hold governments responsible and remedy the lack of affordable housing for many in the Grove.

According to the U.N. Human Rights Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, housing is a right not a commodity. [26] This perspective is useful because “[t]he right to housing is not just a rallying cry. It, like human rights more generally, offers concrete standards that can be implemented and measured for progress. The results can be transformative and can shift us away from charity toward social justice.”[27]

If what is happening in the West Grove runs counter to these international human rights violations, what are the remedies?

There are likely none outside of the United States.

Although the issues in the Grove counter established international rights, the remedies for these issues likely cannot be remediated on the international level. States have the duty to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights. Therefore, our government has a duty to promulgate its own regulations and legislation to protect the housing of and respect the cultural rights of the residents of the West Grove. Discounting the sociopolitical climate, the United States has the arena to fight what is happening in the Grove. Whether it be trudging through the court system, meeting with government officials, or community organizing, the tools exist. U.N. Habitat calls for legal aid and legal officials to be competent to do justice.[28] There are also International Human Rights Institutions that can step in if justice is not done internally by recommending policy or legislative changes, handling complaints, undertaking investigations, ensuring the ratification and implementation of international human rights treaties, and providing training and public education. This might be useful as the West Grove is not the only town in America with this experience. However, the issue here is that there is some legislation that exists. The City must enforce and follow the existing code without too many allowances for waivers. This might even call for modification of the code to ensure enforcement or having adequate enforcement mechanisms in place.

Several community groups such as Housing for All, Power Up, and the Grove Watch Group, as well as the churches and the Coconut Grove Ministerial Alliance are already working on this and fighting for their neighborhood’s integrity. The City is even suing some of the slumlords.[29]

In sum, it is likely advantageous to utilize the internal human rights perspective in combating the crisis in the Grove, but this lens will not solve it. It will at least take adequate cooperation between the City and the developers most importantly with the residents’ desires to keep the beautiful canopy lining the streets and non-leaky, affordable roofs over people’s heads.

[1] David Smiley, Evictions, Profits, and Slum: the Slow Fade of Grande Avenue, Miami Herald, Dec. 2, 2016, http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/article118514978.html.

[2] Roshan Nebrhajani, Grove wants to make Comeback on Its Own Terms, The New Tropic, May 17, 2016, https://thenewtropic.com/west-grove-development/.

[3] Id.

[4] The NCD-2 includes area between Douglas Road and Grand Avenue because they exhibit the “unique Caribbean and Bahamian character and heritage” of the community. Miami, Fla., Miami 21 §3.12.2 (g); Appendix A 2.2 (2015). Charles Avenue, located between Douglas Road and Main Highway, was once the heart of the West Grove, City of Miami Historic Preservation, Report of the City of Miami Preservation Officer to the Historic and Environmental Preservation Board on the Potential Designation of the E.W.F. Stirrup House as a Historic Site, 7, http://www.historicpreservationmiami.com/pdfs/ewf%20stirrup%20hse.pdf

[5] Miami, Fla., Ordinance 11000 §802.1.

[6] Miami 21 Appendix A 2.2.

[7] Appendix A 2.4.1 emphasis added.

[8] Miami 21 Appendix A 2.4.1

[9] Miami 21 Appendix A.3

[10] Mad as Hell and Not Going to Take It Anymore, The Coconut Grove Grapevine (Apr. 28, 2016), http://coconutgrovegrapevine.blogspot.com/2016/04/mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it.html.

[11] Josh Baumgard, Miami’s Glass House Project launches in Coconut Grove, Curbed, February 10, 2017, http://miami.curbed.com/2017/2/10/14577164/miami-glass-house-project-coconut-grove; Letter to the Editor, Glass House Project Does not Conform to NCD-2, Coconut Grove Grapevine (February 11, 2017), http://coconutgrovegrapevine.blogspot.com/2017/02/the-new-glass-house-project-does-not.html.

[12] This also must be balanced with the code that calls for conservation of the street, but also parts of the community that are historical without historic designation or conservation.

[13] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948, Article 27.

[14] Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, The General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization meeting in Paris from 17 October to 21 November 1972, at its seventeenth session, http://whc.unesco.org/?cid=175.

[15] This impacts the affordability aspect of adequate housing.

[16] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948, Article 25.

[17] U.N. Habitat, Right to Adequate Housing Fact Sheet 21, 3, http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/FS21_rev_1_Housing_en.pdf; Leilani Farha (Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing), Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing as a Component of the Right to an Adequate Standard of Living, and on the Right to Non-discrimination in this Context, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Housing/Pages/HousingIndex.aspx.

[18] U.N. Habitat, Right to Adequate Housing Fact Sheet 21, 40, http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/FS21_rev_1_Housing_en.pdf.

[19] The right to adequate housing provides for security of tenure, availability of services, materials and infrastructure like safe drinking water and energy, affordability, habitability, accessibility, location, and cultural adequacy. Furthermore, the right includes the entitlement to participation in housing-related decision-making at the national and community levels. U.N. Habitat, supra note 18.

[20] U.N. Habitat, supra note 18, at 7.

[21] This post does not consider the implications of needing to house people, therefore calling for higher density and the community desires to maintain the single-family home zoning. However, one should keep this issue in mind.

[22] Nick Madigan, In the Shadow of Old Smokey, a Toxic Legacy, N.Y. Times, September 22, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/23/us/old-smokey-is-long-gone-from-miami-but-its-toxic-legacy-lingers.html; See Old Smokey, http://www.oldsmokey.org/story/ (describing the history of Old Smokey).

[23] This post also does not consider the specific human rights implications of the Old Smokey issue.

[24] See U.N. Habitat, supra note 18, at 20-22.

[25] U.N. Habitat, supra note 18, at 9.

[26] Leilani Farha (Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing), Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing as a Component of the Right to an Adequate Standard of Living, and on the Right to Non-discrimination in this Context, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Housing/Pages/HousingIndex.aspx.

[27] Supra note 26.

[28] See U.N. Habitat, supra note 18, at 41.

[29] Jessica Lipscomb, Miami Sues Coconut Grove Landlords for Renting Moldy Sewage Filled Apartments, Miami New Times, Aug. 22, 2016, http://www.miaminewtimes.com/news/miami-sues-coconut-grove-landlords-for-renting-moldy-sewage-filled-apartments-8699775.

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