While the debate heats up about controlling the $200-million-plus redevelopment of Liberty Square, the politicians avoid one of the hottest questions: Why should housing for the poor be clustered in one area?
Some areas -- such as upscale Montgomery County, Maryland -- are requiring most new development to set aside 12.5 to 15 percent for affordable housing, spreading poorer residents around many locations.
For the New Urbanists, such as Miami architect Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, this makes sense for many reasons:
Allowing places for the poor to live in affluent Coral Gables? Key Biscayne? On Brickell?
"I've sat on a couple of committees that have tried to come up with inclusive zoning," said Plater-Zyberk, who was dean of the University of Miami school of architecture for 18 years. "The resistance locally is huge."
Zyberk made the comment some weeks ago during an interview for a profile on her and her husband-partner, Andres Duany, for the Biscayne Times (available HERE).
She said the resistance comes "mostly from the private market." Developers say, "That's a nice idea but they won't be able to afford the rent, if the poor lived with the wealthy."
In fact, the view of the New Urbanists is that the wealthy would in effect be subsidizing housing for those less well off. "The key is having a small amount" of affordable housing in any given neighborhood, "so there's no threat of overwhelming the neighborhood," Plater-Zyberk said.
Such concepts might be an alternative to a place like Liberty Square, with its 700-plus housing units. In 1980, it was near the heart of the McDuffie riots that killed 18 and caused at least $100 million in property damage.
After the riots, local, state and federal panels decried Liberty Square's intense poverty, lack of jobs and huge high school drop-out rates. They vowed to make changes. Thirty-five years later, the Census data shows that the same severe problems remain in the Liberty Square area.
A recent Harvard study shows that when poor families are able to move to more affluent areas, their children do better in school -- and are more likely to find decent jobs as adults. Many sociologists believe that keeping the poor in public housing clusters tends to exacerbate dysfunctional trends.
"Maybe you don't have to put affordable housing on the waterfront, where the highest prices and taxes can be had," Plater-Zyberk said, but some kind of compromises could be found to include affordable housing in zoning requirements -- if there was the political will for it.
As it is, "we have what many cities have -- a kind of excess of wealth and an excess of modesty," Plater-Zyberk said. "It's a shame that's where it tends to be going."
Marvin Dunn, a Miami historian and retired FIU professor, says that the central issue is not racism. He points to North Miami-Dade, where neighborhoods dominated by middle-class blacks have shown strong resistance to government attempts to build public housing projects in their areas.
|From Montgomery County website|
Even so, the Equal Rights Center, a Washington think tank, reports that the Montgomery County poor have a hard time using federally financed Section 8 vouchers to obtain affordable housing. A 2008 test found a 15 percent "discrimination rate against voucher holders in the county -- as evidenced by outright refusals to accept vouchers, limiting the use of vouchers, or imposing different terms and conditions for voucher applicants."
Michael Liu, county director of public housing, said some weeks ago that "the jury is still out" on inclusionary zoning. "More research is needed."
And if the "affordable" units are adjusted with higher rents to reduce the market-rate costs, then a poor person with a federal Section 8 voucher might not have enough money to pay for the apartment.
One possible irony: Plater-Zyberk notes that the future of poor neighborhoods may change as sea levels rise. "One interesting thing is that the northwest section is the high ground, for the most part – so for the most part modest neighborhoods have the high ground."