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A Florida man who refused to sell his home to a developer now lives in the shadows

For two decades, Orlando Capote has struggled with developers and the South Florida city of Coral Gables to protect the home his parents bought more than 35 years ago.
Saul Martinez for NPR
For two decades, Orlando Capote has struggled with developers and the South Florida city of Coral Gables to protect the home his parents bought more than 35 years ago.

There's something unusual about a new real estate development in the posh South Florida city of Coral Gables. Smack-dab in the middle of the million-square-foot complex, there's a small house. On all sides, it's surrounded — by parking garages, office buildings and a 14-story hotel.

Orlando Capote's home is typical of many in Coral Gables. It's a Mediterranean-style, one-story, two-bedroom stucco house with a picturesque barrel-tile roof. There used to be many homes like it in his neighborhood. Now, his is the last one left.

"Just imagine ... that your house was in the middle of Manhattan surrounded by high-rise buildings," Capote says. "That's what it's like."

Surrounded by shadows, piles of debris, big-ticket fines

For most of the year, his home is in shadows. Some of his trees and bushes are dying. His mango tree stopped giving fruit.

Just getting to Capote's house requires special directions, taking you down one-way streets in the retail and residential complex to an unmarked alley that ends at his backyard. There are piles of yard debris that he can't get the city to pick up, he says.

In his front yard, directly across the street from his home, cars and buses idle outside the big, new Loews hotel. Large planters have been installed in front of his house in what seems to be an effort to hide it from hotel guests.

Orlando Capote's small home is in the middle of a million-square-foot complex, surrounded on all sides by parking garages, office buildings and a 14-story hotel.
/ Saul Martinez for NPR
/
Saul Martinez for NPR
Orlando Capote's small home is in the middle of a million-square-foot complex, surrounded on all sides by parking garages, office buildings and a 14-story hotel.

For months, he's been negotiating with the city over a series of code violations, involving everything from overgrown grass to feral cats. At one point, he says, the fines totaled nearly $30,000.

Coral Gables Mayor Vince Lago says that's no longer the case. When it was mistakenly reported that the city had placed a lien on Capote's property, he says city offices were overwhelmed by a flood of emails and phone calls. "We were very clear at the last commission meeting to state that we had not continued to move forward in regards to any citations or any liens in regards to code enforcement," the mayor says.

How this tiny house became surrounded

Capote is 68 years old, a professional engineer who's become well-versed in planning and zoning law. For two decades, he's been engaged in a struggle against developers, the city and what used to be called "progress." He came to Miami from Cuba with his parents as a teenager, and in 1989, they bought the home in Coral Gables.

In 2004, at the height of a real estate boom, a developer began buying up houses in the neighborhood to make way for a new project, according to Capote. "But at that time, my father was very ill and we had to take care of him," he says. "And there was no way that I could look after my father, sell the house and go find another house."

Shortly afterward, Florida's real estate bubble burst and the developer went bankrupt. The other homes in Capote's neighborhood were demolished, and for a decade, not much happened.

Eventually, another developer, Agave Holdings, acquired the land and started moving ahead with a new, more ambitious project. In 2013, Capote says, employees of the developer came to his house and tried to get him to sign a document. When he read it, he says, he became angry. "The wording implied that we were going to sell them the property. And they could represent us in the permitting process for the project," Capote says.

For most of the year, Orlando Capote's home is in shadows. Some of his trees and bushes are dying, and his mango tree stopped giving fruit.
/ Saul Martinez for NPR
/
Saul Martinez for NPR
For most of the year, Orlando Capote's home is in shadows. Some of his trees and bushes are dying, and his mango tree stopped giving fruit.

He says he threw the papers at Agave's representatives and told them not to come back. Later, another employee proposed a house swap — exchanging his home for a property a block away, with a car and $500,000 thrown in to sweeten the deal. Capote never responded, saying he didn't trust the developer. Agave Holdings didn't respond to requests for an interview.

Capote says his worst time came during construction of the multistory development. Cranes swung over his house, and the street was closed for nearly two years. He filed a complaint with Coral Gables saying the site was unsafe because it violated fire code regulations requiring that access to buildings be no more than 50 feet from the street.

A city official visited and declared it safe. Several months later, when Capote's elderly mother fell and couldn't get up, he called fire rescue. Emergency personnel came to his back door but realized they couldn't get her out that way. "They had to take her out the front door, put her on a gurney, 210 feet to the fire rescue vehicle, because that was how close the vehicle could get" due to the street closure, Capote says. "What more proof do you need that the city violated the fire codes to benefit the developer?"

"They have to find a way to coexist"

Capote's mother went to the hospital and later a rehab facility, but she never returned home. That episode is part of a 20-year struggle that has left him bitter, especially about local government. "The laws and rules are supposed to be enforced equally to all parties. And in this case, it was not," he says. "The city repeatedly enforced the laws and rules to the benefit of the developer at our expense."

Just getting to Orlando Capote's house requires special directions, taking you down one-way streets in a retail and residential complex to an unmarked alley that ends at his backyard.
/ Saul Martinez for NPR
/
Saul Martinez for NPR
Just getting to Orlando Capote's house requires special directions, taking you down one-way streets in a retail and residential complex to an unmarked alley that ends at his backyard.

Coral Gables Mayor Lago says the city is just enforcing long-standing regulations. But he acknowledges that Capote is in a difficult situation — living across the street from a busy 14-story hotel. "Now they're partners in a rather large piece of property," Lago says. "And they have to find a way to coexist."

The irony here is that as one of Florida's oldest planned communities, Coral Gables has a reputation of careful management of development in a way that's consistent with the community's history and character. Capote says that's one reason he often gets puzzled queries from passersby who ask, "Why is a small house in the middle of this lavish development?"

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 22, 2024 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story said fire code regulations in Coral Gables, Fla., require access to buildings be no more than 150 feet from the street. In fact, it is 50 feet.
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Greg Allen
As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.