Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Speaking up for the Poor at Liberty Square

By John Dorschner
   Updated second time Thursday, June 25 at 12:45 p.m.

    Worried about the poor being displaced or made second-class citizens, the Miami Workers Center is keeping a close eye on Miami-Dade's huge effort to rebuild Liberty Square.
    "These are not ghettos," says Rosalie Whiley, a past chair of the center's board who grew up in Liberty Square.
Rosalie Whiley
 "These are the hearts and souls of people's lives. Their whole life is based there. They've raised their children there."
    For more than a decade, the people of the Miami Workers Center have been leaders in battling for rights of the poor to have decent housing. Earlier this month, their efforts led to a judge removing two slumlords from the control of wretchedly run-down properties.
    "The system needs to be held accountable," says Yvonne Stratford, a board member involved in previous lengthy legal battles with the county over efforts to redo the Scott Carver housing project. "We need to watch Liberty Square carefully."

Yvonne Stratford

    Earlier this year, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced a private-public partnership costing more than $200 million to completely redo the 57-acre project. It will replace 700 rundown units built in 1937 and add more units for market-based rental, plus shops and maybe even a supermarket.
    Michael Liu, who became director of Miami-Dade Public Housing and Community Development last fall, said earlier this month he's determined not to repeat the county's past mistakes with Scott Carver, in which hundreds were forced out of the project on NW 22nd Avenue as the county spent a dozen years in a wretchedly mismanaged project. Only a small fraction of previous residents were able to move back into the new development.
    At Scott Carver,  "they didn't educate us as to our choices," Stratford says. Residents were sent out with vouchers for other housing, but many became lost in a bureaucratic maze.
    Liu said his staff has a completely different plan this time, which will redevelop Liberty Square in phases, so that no one now there will be without housing.

       Liberty Square has had severe social problems for decades. Unemployment is almost 50 percent. It was near the center of the 1980 riots, which ended with federal, state, and local leaders vowing to improve conditions there -- vows that led to very little change. Almost half of those over 15 -- 47.4 percent -- remain mired in poverty, according to the latest Census data.
     Some social theorists say government's grouping of low-income families in the same place tends to perpetuate poverty and social dysfunction. Liu said earlier this month that the Liberty Square redo is not being called a public housing project, but a mixed use that will include families of various income levels to such clusters of poverty.
    To Whiley, mixed use indicates "the developer is going to control it," meaning the government will be out of the picture.
    Adrian Madriz, a community organizer with Miami Workers Center, says mixed income generally means "developers are looking for ways to make lots of money ... where they can make the most out of the density. They're not doing that in the service of the people who live there -- they're doing get the most out of their bottom line."
Adrian Madriz

    For Madriz, mixed income is a code for "gentrification" -- upscaling an area in which either the poor are left out or are treated as second-class citizens.
    "In the case of Liberty Square, the reason conditions are so poor there  is the county has done a very poor job of listening to the opinions of the residents who live there. If they did a better job of listening, they'd be able to fix some of these problems before they become so incredibly endemic."

    Liu, the housing director, has said in the past he's trying to keep all Liberty Square residents involved in all the changes going on. 
    UPDATE: On Wednesday, Annette Molina, spokeswoman for the county housing department, said that since the bidding process has started, the department is under the "cone of silence" and can't comment. The deadline for bids has been extended by a week, and are now due July 9.
     One subject where government leaders apparently aren't listening is finding activities and jobs for kids in places like Liberty Square, sometimes called Pork 'n' Beans by residents.    "What are the kids supposed to do after school?" asks Trenise Bryant, board chair of the Miami Workers Center. "And what about summer jobs?" She says there was a time when schools and social services offered summer jobs.
Trenise Bryant

    "Now the 13-year-old, the 14-year-old, they don't have nothing to do," Bryant says. "They learn to survive on the streets. 'How do I get the next pair of shoes?' "
    In fact, after the 1980 riots, a report by a state panel and a U.S. Civil Rights Commission report said that a key to changing Liberty City was to provide job and recreational activities for youths. That's still lacking.

             SECOND UPDATE: One person impressed with the center's efforts is Tom Petersen, who spent several years studying public housing as a top assistant to State Attorney Janet Reno in the 1980s and then became a juvenile judge.
            After reading the original post, he said the Miami Workers Center is a rare -- and needed -- group.
            "I bemoan the lack of legitimate community based organizations," Petersen wrote in an email.  "All of the existing CBOs are narrowly defined as providing traditional social services and none are based on real social change.  Which is, of course, that they are dependent on county, or other government, funding. CBOs that are willing or able to speak out in a way not approved by local government are –  as far as I know – non-existent.
            "I just sent $100 to the Miami Workers Center and a membership request.  I am very anxious to learn more about them.  They are an almost extinct species and need protection."
                                           DUNN PROPOSAL
    The women interviewed by the Miami Workers Center were adamantly opposed to a proposal by Marvin Dunn, a retired FIU professor, who suggests paying "surrogate fathers" -- young, college-educated men -- to move into places like Liberty Square, where most families are led by single mothers.
Marvin Dunn
The idea is they would become mentors and role models. The Knight Foundation is funding a pilot study.
    Whiley, the center's past chair, doesn't think moms need advice from paid outsiders. "We do what we have to do to raise our children. ... Why do you feel that a low-income mom can't control her kids, that a man-figure has to be there? "
    Bryant calls the idea "crap." If a single mom feels a son needs some manly advice, she can turn to a brother or a cousin.

    "And a lot of football players are raised by single women of color," Bryant says. "I'll give you just one name. Teddy Bridgewater." A star quarterback at Miami Northwestern and the University of Louisville, now with the Minnesota Vikings. "He was raised by a poor single mom. And what is he today? He's a pro football player."
Marcia Olivo
Marcia Olivo, the center's project director: "There are a lot of single moms in Coral Gables. Do they say she can't raise her son?" But the standard of living in the affluent Gables is far higher than impoverished Liberty City.  "They'll have all the resources they need to raise that son -- and then they put the blame on poor women?"
Dunn responds that if his idea is implemented, "the residents will have a lot to say  about  how this is to be done. Nothing is to be imposed on anyone. If a single mom feels she does not want or need the support she does not have to participate in the program. ...  This initiative is a VOLUNTARY effort. If the residents council at Liberty Square rejects the concept, it will not be implemented at all. Second, yes, of course some men do manage to do just fine with a single mom.  But not everyone can plan on playing professional sports." 
      NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the current titles of Rosalie Whiley, Trenise Bryant and Marcia Olivo.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Bidding Process Starts for New Liberty Square

By John Dorschner

    The ambitious process to overhaul Liberty Square has begun, with qualified prospective bidders meeting Thursday in a conference to discuss how to present their proposals, due July 2, for a massive project with an eventual price tag upwards of $200 million.

    The county's idea is a complete transformation of the 57-acre public housing site, with a mix of public and private housing, retail shops and perhaps even a supermarket on a site that now consists of 700 problematic units built in 1937. Even a high-rise may be part of the mix.
Michael Liu
    "We are absolutely leaving that possibility to the developers," said Michael Liu, director of Miami-Dade Public Housing and Community Development. "We're not going to have any preconceived notions."
           For decades, Liberty Square has a center of severe social problems,  with unemployment running close to 50 percent, according to Census reports. It was near the heart of the 1980 riots and -- despite vows shortly afterwards by federal, state and local leaders to transform the area -- virtually nothing was done during the past 35 years.
    One question raised by critics is whether public housing is itself the problem. A recent study of five million poor families by Harvard researchers found that those families able to move out of public housing clusters to more affluent neighborhoods are much more likely to produce kids who go on to college  and get good-paying jobs.
      Does that mean that the Liberty Square project might be simply an expensive construction to perpetuate dysfunctional poverty? A reporter asked Liu.
    "That's why we're not calling this a public housing development," he replied. "We calling this a mixed-use, mixed income development that also has some public housing units in it. We're going to have market-rate units, affordable housing units," with a mix of people rather than just the very poorest who are there now. In theory, that will make for varying role models for poor children to see and rub elbows with.
        "If that study looked at mixed income units, I think they'd see that those families do better than in the isolated public housing developments," Liu said in an interview Thursday.
        He said public housing should never be intended as a long-term solution, and many Liberty Square residents are expressing interest into finding alternatives for themselves, including private home ownership.
        The county timetable calls for a bidder to be selected in the fall, with construction starting next year and finishing in 2020.
        The county's plan is to take $46 million (including $32 million in general bond funds) and leverage with funds from a private developer to create a $200 million-plus overhaul of the property in the heart of Liberty City.
       Another $28 million will go to develop affordable housing elsewhere in Liberty City, helping residents buy their own homes and a block grant to improve the area.
       Liu, who came to Miami-Dade in 2014, said he's determined not to have a repeat of the last major county public housing revival, the Scott Carver project which ended up taking 12 years with huge cost overruns, including some questionable double-billing. The scandal was documented in a 2006 Miami Herald series, House of Lies, which won a Pulitzer. Many longtime Scott Carver residents are still waiting to return to their neighborhood.
    "That's not going to happen" this time, Liu said firmly.
Liberty Square from Google Maps

    The plan is for the developer to build about 200 units in Lincoln Gardens, a vacant nine-acre Brownsville site two miles from Liberty Square. To start, some Square residents (say, from Block X) will move into Lincoln Gardens. Then those Block X units will be demolished and new units built. Then residents of the next section, say Block Y, will move into the new Block X and the Block Y buildings will be demolished and new structures built, paving the way for Block Z residents to move to Block Y. This rotation of people will go on until the entire Liberty Square is rebuilt.

       At the end of the process, Liu said, the residents shifted to Lincoln Gardens will be asked if they want to move back to Liberty Square, although past situations suggest many of them may choose to remain in Lincoln Gardens. The main point is that residents will be guaranteed a home in public housing if they want -- unlike the chaos that happened in Scott Carver.
      On Friday, Sara Smith, president of the Liberty Square Resident Council, said, "We're still in the early stages. Nothing has been finalized yet. We've been working diligently" with the county create a smooth transition of the residents.
    Smith said many of the 78-year-old buildings had cracks in the foundation, mold, and roach infestations that mean there's a desperate need for new structures.
                       CREATING A 'SAFE HARBOR'
      Marvin Dunn, a black historian and retired Florida International professor, believes new buildings are not enough to alter the unending cycle of poverty that has beset public housing here and elsewhere.
Marvin Dunn
    He's proposed creating a "Safe Harbor," using part of Liberty Square for a gated community of low-income housing, separated from the high crime and bad influences of the surrounding neighborhoods, with college-educated young men paid to serve as surrogate fathers, since public housing often consists of single-mother households.
    Dunn has received research money from the Children's Trust and the Knight Foundation to see if such a concept is feasible in Miami.
     Liu said he's met with Dunn. "We had a good conversation and agreed to loop back as he goes on with his research. Some think it [his idea] is controversial to some extent, but I think it's the kind of thing we want to encourage -- think out of the box, come up with ideas that engage people in discussion and debate.
    "However this shakes out in the end, I want him to be part of that community engagement," Liu said. "At the end of the day, it's going to be the decision of the community."
    Liu has degrees from Stanford and the University of Hawaii. From 2001 to 2005, he was an assistant secretary with the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) department.
    NOTE: An earlier version of this article had an inaccurate estimate of the number of units likely to be built at Lincoln Gardens and an inaccurate description about how Liberty Square residents will be moved as new units are built.

Jungle Island Up for Sale?

         Miami's long troubled amusement park, which announced a huge makeover last year, has hired an investment bank and is considering many options, which could include a sale, its owner said Monday. Full story HEREPosted June 1, 2015

Will Rebuilt Liberty Square Be Really New -- Or Repeat of Past Failings?

          Miami-Dade has announced a $200 million plan to redo poor, problematic Liberty Square. Studies show that concentrated poverty in public housing often leads to continued dysfunctional neighborhoods. Author Marvin Dunn has an idea about how that can be avoided this time. Full story HEREPosted May 20, 2015

Miami 1980 vs. Baltimore 2015

On the 35th anniversary of the McDuffie riots, several involved in those tumultuous events  say very little has changed in black's poorest neighborhoods -- noting disturbing similarities with recent events in Baltimore. Also: Marvin Dunn, co-author of a book on the 1980 riot, asks Miami to install marker where Arthur McDuffie died. Full report available HERE. Posted May 16, 2015.