Updated: Jan 27
Long neglected, the city’s historically Black community is slowly coming back — one house at a time
Ursula Hunter is showing me her kitchen.
There's an oven and stovetop and counters, cabinets and a refrigerator that's decorated with pictures of her kids, Torrance, Jr., 9, and Torriah, 8. She walks back and forth to demonstrate she actually has room to move around while she cooks.
That is a big deal. The last place the family lived, there was “just a stove and the sink was right next to it,” says the 33-year-old cafeteria worker. Some days, the sink didn’t even work, and Hunter had to wash dishes in the bathroom.
The bathroom. Well … the bathroom was its own special kind of nightmare.
Torrance Rhodes, 49, Hunter's fiancé, tries to find polite words to explain it to me: “We could literally hear our neighbor flush the toilet, and seconds later, it would start bubbling up in our tub.”
“We were always cleaning the tub with boiling water and bleach,” sighs Hunter. “We always had gallons of bleach around.”
Their apartment was a literal shit-hole. A one-room “shotgun” affair with mold in the walls and sewage in the tub. Hunter and the kids constantly suffered upper respiratory infections. Pleas to their landlord to make repairs were ignored. But still they stayed.
Because Hunter and Rhodes had a plan. They wanted a house of their own. So, they gritted it out. They worked three jobs between them to pay off credit cards and medical bills and rehab Hunter’s credit, which had tanked after a couple of vehicle repossessions. Rhodes detailed cars while Hunter fed students at Ocoee Elementary School, then second-shifted it at an assisted living facility feeding the elderly.
It took five years.
“We had to make that sacrifice. We didn’t give up. We paid off the credit card debt. When we see this now —” We're in the foyer as Rhodes looks around the house, at the kitchen and the dining room and living room as if he still can’t quite believe where he’s standing. “We’re like 'Man, we did it.'"
"IT'S BETTER KARMA" That Hunter and Rhodes were able to buy their home is largely the result of an intriguing marriage between West Orange Habitat for Humanity and the city of Winter Garden. Theirs is one of three new houses, built by Habitat for Humanity, that sits on a block that's charmingly become known as Green Oaks Row. With their sherbet hues and inviting porches — Hunter and Rhode’s home is also blessed with an old-growth shade tree — these houses would not look out of place in upscale Oakland Park.
This block — Tenth Street between Bay and Center Streets — is ground zero for the city’s ambitious 20-year project to revive East Winter Garden’s historic Black neighborhood. The neighborhood was established by Black citrus packers and farmworkers in the early part of the 20th century. Center Street was the heart of it, before civil rights gains eliminated the need for a parallel Black downtown and a wholly segregated neighborhood, before opportunities in bigger cities lured residents away, before the neighborhood began to decline in the '60s.
Today, the overarching mission is to restore the community without gentrifying the area and displacing the people who've lived here all their lives — some families go back generations — for high-end salons and shops, trendy eateries and expensive housing.
Jason King, a principal with the urban design firm Dover, Kohl & Partners in Miami, derides that as the “Soho Effect,” named after the unfortunate transformation of the New York City neighborhood. Artists had claimed Soho in the '60s, living and working in $30-a-month industrial loft space the city had no use for. Yuppies discovered it in the 1980s. Today, Soho is an outdoor mall with chain stores, expensive condos and trendy hotels. Tourists love it.
The city hired King in July 2017, to help make sure that wouldn’t happen to East Winter Garden.
“We call it economic regeneration," King tells me in a phone interview. "We’re trying to help the community return to what it once was.”
Call it the Anti-Soho Effect.
Toward that goal, Winter Garden is spending millions of dollars scooping up properties as they become available to keep them out of the hands of land speculators and developers.
“Who knows what they’d do with it,” says Mike Bollhoefer, Winter Garden’s city manager and the man in charge of turning these bold plans into reality. “Gentrification is easy. But it’s not right. This is a historical community. When we finish this development, the community will look different, but the people will pretty much be the same. In the long term, to redevelop this community without gentrification will make Winter Garden a better, stronger city, more culturally diverse. It’s better for the city. It’s better karma, too.”
“THESE HOUSES HAVE PERSONALITY”
That’s where West Orange Habitat for Humanity comes in. Another organization in the good karma business, Habitat for Humanity is known for building affordable housing, providing zero-interest loans and requiring their homeowners to actually pitch in to pour foundations, hammer nails and otherwise help construct the homes they’ll live in. As Habitat for Humanity was planning out Green Oaks Row, the city nudged them to include architectural design elements to bring them in line with the city’s vision for East Winter Garden. Things like dormers, porches, peaked roofs and tucking the garages in the back to give the homes more of a Mayberry, R.F.D. feel.
“These houses have personality,” says Bollhoefer. “It’s not just to build a house, but to build a house people can be proud of. When you have a better-looking house, people are more likely to take care of it, to take pride in it. It’s part of building a community people are proud of.”
You can see the logic. The effects of homeownership ripple out to every segment of life. Studies show that homeowners are more connected to their communities, more likely to volunteer and more likely to vote in local elections. Homeowners self-report that they feel healthier and happier. They're also more engaged as parents and have kids who do better in school and have lower rates of teen pregnancy. If homeownership also erased fine lines, realtors could market it as a super serum.
But no sooner were the houses built then there was blowback in the community that only one of the three Green Oaks Row homes went to a family from East Winter Garden.
Pastor Anthony Hodge, founder of Finding the Lost Sheep Ministry and director of the Impact Center on Klondike Street, is pretty steamed. “When they built the first three houses on Tenth Street, they said those houses were for East Winter Garden residents only,” he says, frustrated. “My wife and I usually do the dedications for the houses, and the first two occupants, I’m like these are not residents of East Winter Garden.”
“Habitat got beat up pretty badly over that,” says Bollhoefer ruefully. “I told Habitat, we can’t have that happen. That’s where we had to line up our missions. Their mission is to put people in houses. Our goal is to make sure we’re building houses for the people who already live in the community. Now we are only doing land swaps with them when they give the overwhelming majority of homes — I want 100 percent, but it gets tricky with federal laws — to the people who already live in the community.”
The city hit on an artful workaround for the Fair Housing Act, meant to protect against housing discrimination, which would preserve the subsidized housing for East Winter Garden residents. Bollhoefer says they’re doing outreach in the community and working with outside organizations to "prequalify" East Winter Garden residents, ensuring they're ready with their down payments and income verification. “When the properties come up, they’re first in line to get those houses.”
WITH THE COMMUNITY, FOR THE COMMUNITY
Listen to Bollhoefer talk for a while, watch his hands fly over the giant smart board in the City Hall conference room as he pulls up a map of the East Winter Garden redevelopment zone, zooming in on properties, excitedly explaining which buildings the city plans to refurbish, where new homes will be built and new businesses are envisioned, you begin to believe that East Winter Garden will eventually come to resemble something like the plan Dover, Kohl submitted in 2017.
"If you wanted to gentrify the community, you could build it real fast. It takes more time to build when you don’t want to gentrify a community because you don’t have builders who are going to make the profit that they want to make." — Winter Garden City Manager Mike Bollhoefer
That July, King, the urban designer, and his team — which included a transportation expert, an economist, an architect and a landscape architect — set up in a corner at the Maxey Community Center on Klondike. Over five days they ran interactive meetings with community leaders, business owners and residents. They asked kids to draw their designs for the neighborhood. They met residents anywhere they could find them. “I walked every street,” King recalls. “I sat on a lot of porches.” Everywhere, they asked, What do you want for your community?
King heard things like affordable homes to buy or rent; stores/restaurants with healthy food; community businesses; all-age recreation activities; and neighborhood basics like sidewalks, street lighting and trees. Essentially the same things every community needs.
“I do 12 of these charettes a year, and that was one of our best turnouts. We talked to 400 people,” King recalls. “A charette is an on-site, multi-day interactive design workshop in which everyone’s invited. You create the plan for the community, with the community, right there in the community. You start not knowing much at all, and by the end of the five days, you create a plan. Then you ask people what they think. Seventy-five percent said Yes/Probably Yes that the ideas were on the right track. No one said No, which is a pretty good response.”
"BUT NOTHING HAPPENED"
But in the neighborhood, discernible change has been slow — and that was before Covid-19 brought life to a standstill. Of course, it doesn’t help that folks in East Winter Garden have watched the transformation on Plant Street as well as the explosive development in southwest Winter Garden ... and wondered when it was going to be their turn.
“They went all the way out with that side of town. They forgot about this side,” says Shenika Rhodes, 46, an independent caretaker for special needs children. She grew up in East Winter Garden. When she was looking for a house, she wanted to buy there to be close to family. But she couldn’t find anything but fixer-uppers. With a 3-year-old and another baby on the way, that wasn’t going to be practical. She ended up buying in western Winter Garden.
“I was excited when I saw the pictures, how they were going to rebuild East Winter Garden with sidewalks, shops and beautiful homes," she says. "I was like Wow! This is going to be great! But nothing happened. It wasn’t surprising.”
“Meetings are meetings. A lot of input. A lot conversation. But as you can see, little results,” says Gary Haskell, 61. Haskell is sitting with friends on the back patio of his uncle’s house, looking out across an empty lot the city owns. Haskell grew up in the area, but now lives in Ocoee where he runs a medical transportation service with his wife. His attitude is that houses are fine, but the neighborhood lacks the amenities that makes a neighborhood livable.
“This is a food desert! Put a grocery store down here!” he grouses. "People have to go to Publix on Colonial or on Dillard there’s a Key Food. But look how far they have to go. And if they don’t have a car, they can’t get there. If you’re going to put houses down here, put something here where the people in those houses don’t have to drive uptown to get a tomato.”
WHAT MONEY CAN BUY
It also doesn’t help that Heritage on Plant, a stone’s throw across Ninth Street, next to the Winter Garden Library, began construction in 2018 and by 2019, had 43 completed townhouses and single-family homes, ranging from $340,000 to $680,000. This month Habitat for Humanity cleared a lot on Center Street in order to start construction on four houses, bringing its total in East Winter Garden to 10.
“I was not thrilled when I saw [Heritage on Plant] go up because it’s near the neighborhood I’m trying to revitalize,” admits City Commissioner Mark Maciel, who represents District 3, which includes East Winter Garden. “It’s frustrating for me, too. I’m of the mindset that it’s just not happening fast enough. It’s not like things haven’t been done. We’ve built parks, a pool. There’s a lot of money that’s gone into the community for years. But it’s just never as fast as everybody wants it. It’s certainly not as fast as I would like it. "
When I ask Bollhoefer about the relative speed with which the Heritage on Plant homes came together compared to those in East Winter Garden, he has a ready answer: Money.
“If you wanted to gentrify the community, you could build it real fast,” Bollhoefer says. “It takes more time to build when you don’t want to gentrify a community because you don’t have builders who are going to make the profit that they want to make. [Heritage on Plant] was 100 percent profit-driven. And those are expensive houses. No one in East Winter Garden would be able to afford to buy those. That’s the difference.
“We keep the houses in East Winter Garden affordable by donating the land, waiving all the fees, building some houses a little bit smaller, whatever we can do to make them look good, but keep them affordable. It’s a challenge. You’re not going to find people from the private sector willing to go in there and do this stuff for free. That’s why we work with Habitat for Humanity.”
“Compared to other countries, we do not have the resources to build affordable public subsidized housing that we should in this country,” says King. “In other countries building affordable housing is a lucrative venture. One can make a good living and have a profitable company doing it. In this country, God, it is so difficult.”