Friday, January 6, 2012

40 acres, Mule, and a Headache

My family has an itch for owning land. It's a traditional view of economics and wealth. We are told that real estate is always a solid investment. But it can also be a headache and a nuisance. Mema passed away a few years ago and left her house deed in the name of me and my sister. She was a hotel maid who worked tirelessly for decades, saved wisely, and was able to buy a house, retire, and live for another 30 years. My grandmother thought she was doing us a favor by leaving us the house. Yet me and my sister want nothing to do with it. We don't claim it on our tax forms, we don't have any desire to renovate or fix-and-flip the land. We have remained silent owners in technical name only while my Mom handles the house. Growing up we got a taste of what it takes to own property and to be a landlord.

There is something about the Squire name and owning land. We seemed fated to be in possession of land, lose it, and then get it back again almost against our will. The Squires were one of the few Black families in Florida to own significant amounts of property in Central and Northern Florida at the turn of the century. My great grandfather owned tracks of land that he developed into rough-hewn shotgun houses. He would set up a few tables, a simple bar, a piano and then be open for the business. Weekend and migrant farmers looking to drink, sing, and eat the weekend away would go to these makeshift houses.

My great grandfather would stock the houses with stacks of fried fish sandwiches, cheap liquor, and basic pianist. In a short amount of time he earned quite a lot of money, much to the annoyance of White families and farmers in the area. You could save he was rich in the traditional sense of the word: he owned land, houses, and had several successful businesses. But his life ended too soon. Mema said that her Dad got unexpectantly sick, while my other relative -Aunt Dolly- said that White people in town arranged to have taken care of in a discrete manner. Whatever the reason, the Squires were left without a patriarch and were accustomed to high-living. The property was quickly sold off, the businesses dispersed, and my great grandmother badly invested the money. Although they well-off they were never rich again. The children scattered across the Florida peninsula to different places. Mema (or Lynn Maddox) came down to Florida and began working as a maid in hotels. She purchased a house in Liberty City back in a time when the prices were cheap and the neighborhood was poor but safe.

Mema paid the mortgage off and was quickly in possession of property that took a price hit with the surge of riots and violence in the 60s and 70s. And the 80s. Liberty City was decimated but an enclave of older Black women still held on to their property through the chaos and violence. My grandmother was a part of that generation that is coming to a close right now. Emboldened by how deceptively easy it is to purchase Florida, Mema purchased some more land in more upscale Broward County. It was just a half acre with two houses built on it. She would collect rent from tenants. In theory this sounded like a good idea.

In 1973 my Dad bought 3 acres of land in the depth of South Florida. The land was so far south that the streets were numbered in the 300s and 200s avenues.  No personal addresses, just numbered plots. Once the highway ended, the drive was made on dirt and mud roads. His thinking was that development would be coming to South Florida's nether regions pretty soon and he could turn a profit by selling or developing it. Purchase price: $3,000. Given that it was $1,000 for an acre that was a very shrewd move on his part. In theory this too sounded like a good idea.

But what some times is a nice theory makes for messy business. By the time I was a teenager,  my Dad dreaded going to see the land. He was also now in charge of my grandmother's land.

Going to see the land involved steeling oneself. Occasionally my Dad would bring me along and try to make it fun or at least have someone to talk to on the ride over. The first time I went to see my grandmother's land I was shocked. It was a short ride from our home. Yet I wasn't even aware of it until I was almost a 10. We pulled up to the property and I was stunned. The houses looked like run-down shacks. I could feel the tension in the car, some times he would even take out a cigarette. He always kept a pack of cigarettes in the glove compartment or in that no-man's land between the driver and passenger seat. Seeing him smoke was like seeing a full solar eclipse: something that only happened once every few years. If he was smoking, that meant something was working on him at a deep subconscious level.

I got out of the car the first time and didn't even want to enter on to the property. It was so awful, like some rickety dungeon erected in the middle of slum. But we opened the laughably pointless gate and walked up the steps. He knocked on the door and what emerged was some awful ancestor, some throwback to antebellum. An almost toothless Black rag of a woman emerged with a Southern accent so thick I thought it was another language. My Dad asked about the rent. Apparently they hadn't paid for a few months. The woman mumbled some excuse and my Dad nodded, not listening while both our bodies hedged backwards, hoping to end this exchange as quickly as possible. Then my Dad knocked on the second house. No one was home or they weren't coming to the door. Satisfied that he had fulfilled his landlord obligations, he circumambulated the houses. I asked what he was doing and he said he was checking for damages. Damages?!? The place was a disaster and he was looking for mold on the Titanic.

We got back into the car and left. I only visited the property a few more times before my Dad sold it on behalf of my grandmother. Good riddance. The city was beginning to fine and question them about the property. The owners were rightfully held responsible for the conditions but the tenants weren't making any payments. There was a minimal amount of money going out to fix the place, but no money coming in. It was real estate trap.

When my other grandmother passed away it was my Mom's turn. Yvonne was now in possession of this oddly shaped duplex. Annie Boston (on my mother's side) also worked cleaning houses when she moved to South Florida. She too bought land and home in Liberty. She too lived through the downturn and 30 year collapse of the Black middle class in South Florida. Her tenants were right next door. She divided her large house and had a wall put up that gave away a third to a needy renter. For most of her latter years she had reliable tenant living right on the other side of the wall. Grandmother Annie's reasons for buying were more interesting.

She moved to Miami from South Carolina, fleeing an abusive and deranged husband. In South Carolina she worked and earned a good living as a cleaning and laundry lady. They lived in a poor town, where the divide between Whites and Blacks was actually quite minimal. Everyone was too poor to care about race. They would hang around each other, Black kids and white kids, Black mothers and White mothers struggling to make a living. They would have stayed in South Carolina if it wasn't for Annie's husband. In retrospect, my mom said the man was probably clinically insane. He would bribe little Yvonne to make up lies about her mother and then fly into a rage at the contrived injustices before viciously beating his wife. One day when my mom was trying to remember the details about him she simply shook her head and repeated again and again 'that man was not well."

They left town late one night, hiding in the back of a pickup truck. I imagine her little boy laying down on the flatbed and staring up at the South Carolina sky one last time as a scared driver sped out of their small town and didn't stop until Miami. My grandmother got set up in a housing project and, being the entrepreneur that she was, began selling bathtub gin. The moonshine business was quite profitable for them and jealousy ensued as well as fear of having the cops raid their apartment. At that point, my grandmother decided it would be a wise time to invest that bathtub gin money into some real estate.

She bought a home and continued on with her entrepreneur'ing ways, free from the snooping eyes of apartment moms. By the time I was born the only thing I saw her selling regularly from her home were pig feet, pickled eggs, and candy. But I wouldn't be surprised if there wasn't some gin business going on. The only problem with the bathtub gin business in the 70s and 80s is that the government and corporations had taken over that racket in the Black community. There would be no room for 'bath brewers' when you could get the bodega down the block and get the commercialized stuff with the approved seal on it.

My mom said that she was sent money from Grandma Annie for her entire four years of college. Money would mysteriously come in the mail to cover her extra needs. When she asked where it came from, Grandma Annie claimed to have hit a lucky four-year streak of playing the numbers. I find that highly unlikely but I respect the testimony of the dearly departed. I will leave it alone out of love of my family. Besides, the main point is that after her passing, my mother inherited the house that had several cousins living in it. A simple agreement was made: just pay the bare minimum, the monthly fees to cover lights, water, and property tax. This came to roughly $400-500/month for a giant house with several bedrooms. My cousins couldn't keep to the promise and after almost 2 years of paying out of pocket, my parents were looking to get out of the landlord business. One of the deepest regrets is that a better way couldn't have been found in this situation. But my Dad was growing angrier by the month at the expenses and then the call for repairs which would cost in the thousands. He had my cousins evicted and then sold the property. His anger was frightening but his timing was perfect. The house was sold only a few months before the economic implosion. What was a $200,000 would only be worth $70,000 in a year. They managed to get out ahead this time and pay back all the expenses. The land went to a Dominican family as the Latino population is now the one buying up plots of land in Liberty City. There was no profits but there were also no deficits. And the only losses were our family connection to cousins who I haven't heard or seen in years. Apparently they live in far-flung southern areas of Dade county, almost near my Dad's 3 acres. But even that must go.

Unwilling to keep visiting the 3 acres and tired of waiting for that 'inevitable real estate boom' he sold the last of the family property to our Cuban mechanic who was homesick for a patch of land to farm. Apparently the land is now being put to use for the first time in decades. One day I would like to taste the fruit from that farm and know that in some small way I am connected.

Mema passed away and left the house to her grandchildren. Toward the end of her life, a man named John moved in as a roommate. John was a veteran kicked out of his house by his own kids. Mema took him in and let him sleep on the couch. She even encouraged him to fix up the bedroom of her husband. John preferred the couch and my Grandfather Opa's room remains a spooky mausoleum to this day. John saved Mema's life numerous times when she blacked out or her sugar sent her into a coma. This obviously endeared him to my parents and the rest of the family. When Mema passed away I dreaded the thought of having John move out against his will. My sister didn't want that eviction on her conscience either. At the same time we didn't want responsibility of up keeping the property he lived on, which is technically in our names.

For now the property is in limbo. John is able to scrape together enough money off of his meager benefits to pay for basic stuff. My mom splits the maintenance cost with him. Last year when a water line burst outside the house and flooded the garage, it took John days before he called. I can still hear the perplexed and peeved voice of my mom on the phone talking to this elderly and forgetful veteran. Those extra days wait costs hundreds in clean up and repair. When the cable stopped working or when city inspectors required the walls of Opa's vacant room to be gutted and reconstructed from hurricane damage, it was my Mom's responsibility to find the repairman, research costs, equipment, and then ensure the repairs were done properly.

If the responsibility of this land falls to me I wouldn't know what to do. Despite all my bluster and bravado, I turn back into that little boy when it comes to real estate: I find myself slowly hedging away from that dungeon.



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