Harnessing Community Lawyering + Advocacy + Real Estate Skills Help Residents Hold Back West Grove Gentrification

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DanielaTagtachian, Shahzad Emami & Daniela Cimo

Daniela Tagtachian, Mysun Foundation Fellow, Miami City Commissioner Ken Russell, and Daniela Cimo

In a 104-year-old church on the corner of Charles Avenue and Hibiscus Street, more than 100 people fill the 10 rows of pews for a community meeting on a Thursday night in February. All around the tiny St. James Baptist Church, historic homes and run-down apartments have been razed, splintering neighborhoods that were first settled in the mid-1880s by Bahamian laborers building the city that wasn’t yet a city.

In their place, boxy modern zero-lot-line houses tower over historic shotgun-style wood houses, and the main Grand Avenue corridor awaits high rise luxury apartment buildings that will forever change the face of a once vibrant center for Black life in Miami.

Among the attendees of the meeting are Miami Law alumni; three Miami Law student fellows from the newly formed Community Equity, Innovation, and Resource Lab, an incubator project within the Center for Ethics and Public Service; and Professor Anthony Alfieri,  and senior program manager Lauren Madigan, who have all been working with civic and faith-based groups to stop the displacement and resegregation of longtime inhabitants in West Grove and the onslaught of gentrification and upzoning.

Shahrzad Emami J.D. ’06 and LL.M. ’07 in Real Property Development is founder and director of the Florida Community Development Legal Project and director of the Affordable Housing and Community Development practice group at Legal Services of Greater Miami, and Daniela Cimo, J.D. ‘17, staff attorney in the FCDLP practice group, are general counsel for the new West Grove nonprofit Grove Rights and Community Equity, Inc. The FCLDP prioritizes the representation of non-profits and community groups engaged in affordable housing preservation, production, and other economic development activities to ensure that these groups are provided the education, technical skills, and legal representation to succeed in preserving and improving their neighborhoods and combat negative effects of gentrification. Daniela Cimo, J.D. ‘17, is staff attorney in the FCDLP practice group. Both are general counsel for the new West Grove nonprofit Grove Rights and Community Equity, Inc. which prioritizes the representation of non-profits and community groups engaged in affordable housing preservation, production, and other economic development activities to ensure that these groups are provided the education, technical skills, and legal representation to succeed in preserving and improving their neighborhoods and combat negative effects of gentrification.

“We marry community lawyering which uses legal advocacy to help achieve solutions to community-identified issues like gentrification and lack of affordable housing, with our knowledge of real estate, corporate, tax, and affordable housing law, to build and empower local institutions in bringing about systemic change,” Emami said. “Social change can only last when it is led by the people most affected.”

The Community Equity, Innovation, and Resource Lab was founded in 2018 to address the urgent needs of socioeconomically impoverished and politically disenfranchised inner-city communities of color. It integrates anti-poverty and civil rights advocacy and grassroots organizing strategies with university-wide, interdisciplinary resources to advance social justice initiatives at the neighborhood intersection of race and inequality in education, employment, health, housing, social services, and the natural and built environment.

Participating 1L students Bria Dantzler, Christopher Gray, Estefania Lalinde, Odette Ponce, Maleah Riley-Brown, Logan Sandler, and Tori Simkovic join lab fellows Jessie Browning, Cicely Hodges, and Sofia Manzo.

“It's incredibly inspiring to see what community groups can accomplish when they're provided with education, policy research, and technical assistance, which is what the lab provides,” says Browning. “Our goal is to give these civic groups the training and data they need and then empower these groups to contextualize and utilize this information. If GRACE, Inc., is successful in its CBA negotiations, this would be the first successful CBA in the City of Miami and a huge win, not only for the West Grove but other at-risk low-income communities in South Florida.”

With the help of Miami Law’s alumnae and UM law students, GRACE – formerly the West Grove Task Force – is deploying a multipronged challenge – meeting with developers to negotiate set-asides of a percentage of apartments for affordable housing for displaced residents and contribute to the Community Benefits Agreements to assist existing elderly and low-income residents to repair the old homes. They are also challenging the decade-old Miami 21 Zoning Code, the City of Miami’s road map to land use and urban planning, and upzoning policies and practices on the grounds that they violate the 1968 federal Fair Housing Act in their disparate impact, displacement, and resegregation of Black residents.

“As a graduate of UM Law with both a J.D. and LL.M. in Real Estate Development, I combined my passion for public interest work, which started in law school,” Emami said, “with my background in real estate from the LLM program to figure out innovative ways to assist non-profit community based corporate groups preserve and strengthen the communities they serve. And now in my position as an adjunct professor of affordable housing law, I have the opportunity to pass along the wonderful nature of this legal practice.”