Can Related Succeed in Troubled Liberty City?

By John Dorschner
    As Related Urban starts the process today to get county commission approval for its proposed $307 million remake of Liberty Square, one deep question remains:
    Can a redo of the county's oldest and biggest public housing project succeed if the area around it remains impoverished and crime ridden?
    "You're right, it's not just about bricks and mortars," says
Michael Liu
Michael Liu, Miami-Dade's director of public housing.
    He said that Related Urban Development Group has in its proposal many community benefits to bring jobs and educational opportunities to Liberty Square, and work is being done with both the county and city police to reduce violence.
    "I've very confident many steps are being taken," Liu says, but he knows problems "are not just going to evaporate over night if you don't work on it."
    Several critics have questioned how much new buildings can do.
    Senior Judge Tom Petersen points to high rates of crime and violence in the blocks around Liberty Square.   New buildings "won't change that," Petersen said in an interview some months ago.
Tom Petersen
Petersen called it a  "sad reality" that most of the shootings occurred on streets just outside Liberty Square where "crime and social dysfunction have existed without remission for at least the three generations during which I have been familiar with the neighborhood."
    Others have questioned whether it's realistic to expect people  with higher incomes to move into into the work-force and affordable housing units Related Urban is planning along side the public housing units -- and whether new structures will do anything to help the residents to climb out of the extreme poverty that has long been mired in the area.
Rev. R. Joaquin Willis
   Thirty-six years after the McDuffie riots caused national, state and local leaders vowed to fix the problems of Liberty City, "by any statistical measure it's worse off," says Rev. R. Joaquin Willis, pastor of the Church of the Open Door and leader of a large group of local pastors.
    Still, some are optimistic about the chances of a remade Liberty Square leading a major transition. "It can do a lot," says Nathaniel Wilcox, executive director of the nonprofit People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality (PULSE).
    Wilcox, who was on the selection committee that ranked the Liberty Square bidders, points to the remade Scott Carver, a once decrepit housing project that after a lengthy and controversial process has become a quiet, mixed income development with considerably reduced crime.
    "When people take pride in where they live," that leads to concerted efforts to keep the area nice and reduce crime, Wilcox says. "That's the type of change we're looking for." A remade Liberty Square is an "opportunity to change the situation that's broken."

          Commission Committee Meets at 2 p.m.
    Mayor Carlos Gimenez has recommended that the commission approve the Related Urban proposal. On Thursday at 2 p.m., it gets its first test, before the commission's economic prosperity committee.
    The final Related Urban proposal calls for 1572 units to be built at Liberty Square, which now has about 700. and nearby Lincoln Gardens, which at present is an open lot.

  Liberty Square will have 640 public housing apartments, 632 non-public units for mixed income groups and 60 home ownership units.
    Lincoln Gardens will have 240 units -- including 117 public housing.
    The new Liberty Square apartments, replacing units 70-plus years old, will include central air (with programmable thermostats in each unit), washer-dryers, dishwashers, microwaves and granite counter tops in the kitchens.
    When Related Urban presented their proposal to Liberty Square residents last month, there were murmurs of approval in the audience. Many were convinced as soon as they heard the promise of central air: Residents now must provide their own wall units, and if they break down, many residents cannot afford to replace them. (The story on that meeting is HERE.)
    What's more, Related Urban worked out a way so that residents didn't have to leave Liberty Square even temporarily as the rebuilding goes on around them.

                      County to Get Its Money Back
    In a move certain to impress voters (and politicians) Related Urban announced it plans to repay over 15 years the $46 million that the county is putting into the project.
      After negotiations with the Liberty Square residents' council, Related Group also upped its commitment of 20 percent of the construction jobs going to low-income workers -- to a new "goal of 30 percent."
    Education groups are being brought in for job training "so there can be no excuse for Related not finding qualified applicants," Liu says. Other programs will help train ex-offenders, the group that often finds the hardest time finding jobs.
    The Related plan is to have retail spaces along NW 15th Avenue -- the project's western boundary -- available for "mom and pop" stores, and there are discussions with the city and local urban planners to have a similar renovation for stores on the other side of the avenue, which is outside of Liberty Square.
    Liu said the county will keep close track to make sure that Related Urban fulfills its promises.
Alberto Milo
Alberto Milo, senior vice president of the developer said in an email: "Residents and the community stakeholders will have the ability to monitor and see first-hand how the redevelopment process and community benefits are delivered. Our company has had a stellar track record of delivering successful communities over the last 37 years."
    Another issue: Doug Mayer, a veteran nonprofit developer of affordable housing, said to me last year:  "You can always do affordable housing in a low-income area. But are you going to entice other people to come to Liberty City" to rent market-rate apartments? "It's not very realistic."
    Liu is confident that Liberty Square can be made to work for a "reasonable mix of income levels" with improvements in the area. "It's close to downtown, the airport," as well as I-95. "It's a very attractive location."

     Thorny Issue of Crime on Surrounding Streets   
Perhaps a thornier issue is what to do about crime. Agreeing with Judge Petersen, Wilcox says, "A lot of the criminal element doesn't live in Liberty Square."
     Liu said discussions with city and county police are ongoing, and the redesign will make it easier for on-the-ground community policing in Liberty Square, which will be a gated community with electronic keying.
    Wilcox, the PULSE director, says police need to do a much better job of controlling crime in the area. He says gangs of drug dealers hang out on corners looking for customers just four blocks from the police station.
    "You know how long it would take to arrest a negro selling drugs on a downtown street, or Aventura, or Brickell?" Wilcox asks. Yet police tolerate it in Liberty City, he says, and that can't continue. He notes some gang members have been arrested more than 40 times, and still find themselves quickly back on the streets.

                         An Arduous Bidding Process
    The competition for the rebuild has lasted almost a year.
    One big push-back from residents was that most had memories of the disaster at Scott Carver, where residents were forced to move out as a dysfunctional bureaucracy struggled for years to get the project rebuilt. Most residents were never able to move back, and Liberty Square residents feared that they too might be tossed out forever.
    Liu, who took over the county's public housing in 2014, well after the Scott Carver disaster, said one problem with that redevelopment was the original plans called for a reduction of the 850 public housing units to 177 in the redo, with the rest of the area devoted to apartments for those with higher incomes.

                         Concentration of Poverty?
    The theory was that the creators didn't want to "concentrate poverty," by having so many poor people in one place.
    Liu says he also doesn't want to concentrate poverty -- hence the plans for a mixed-income development -- but the plans for Liberty Square and Lincoln Gardens include more public housing units than are currently occupied -- guaranteeing every current resident a place if each wants one.
    In the first round of rating six bidders, Atlantic Pacific Communities ranked highest because of the heavily weighted scores of Sara Smith, president of the residents' council.
Sara Smith

    Liu notes that the other eight scorers all had Related Urban rated higher than Atlantic Pacific.
    The second round, for best and final offer, was between the two top rated, Related and APC.
    Pastor Willis, who was associated with the third-ranked bidder, the nonprofit Community Housing Partners of Virginia, said he complained in a letter to the county that APC should not have made the cut, because it's been linked with some tawdry activities through a previous entity.
    Willis and many others in Liberty City were suspicious of the Related Urban win because it's led by Jorge Perez, who many view as the most powerful figure in Miami-Dade politics. 

                                 Super Bowl Threats
    Last month, a group of pastors, not including Willis, held a press conference at Liberty Square, complaining about the unfair process in which the desires of the residents, as represented by Sara Smith, were ignored. Among other things, the pastors threatened to urge the National Football League to avoid Miami for future Super Bowls because of the injustice.
    Much quieter, Willis complained about the process in a letter to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development that the bidding had been "marred in politics, broken promises, delays and a lack of transparency."  (That story is available HERE.)
    Two weeks ago, HUD responded to Willis, noting that no one had filed a formal bid protest, but if the commission approves the Related plan, HUD will "conduct our due diligence as is required  ... We will be mindful of your communication to the Secretary at that time."
    During the bidding process, Liu said Related Urban made "significant" improvements to its proposal.
    In the final analysis, one major difference concerned financing, Liu said. Related Urban plans to rely on four percent low-income tax credits, which are quite easy to obtain, while part of Atlantic Pacific's plan was to apply for nine percent tax credits, which obtained only through a highly competitive process in which no developer can be certain of success. (My tax credit stories are HERE and HERE and HERE.)

       Atlantic Pacific Had "No Alternative Backup"
    Atlantic Pacific had "no alternative backup" to the nine percent credits, Liu said, calling this contrast in financing "frankly a very key difference."
    For the best and final offer, the six selection committee members who are government employees ranked Related Urban higher than Atlantic Pacific. 
    None of the three non-government employees on the nine-member committee ranked Related No. 1. Sara Smith scored APC 75, RUDG 62. Wilcox, the PULSE leader, had them tied 71-71. And Andrea Heuson, a University of Miami professor of finance, scored APC 60, RUDG 56.
    In a phone interview, Heuson said she found the two last proposals "very similar, with great amenities and great partners," but a deciding factor for her was when she calculated costs per bedroom. APC's were lower.
    Heuson said she thought that the bidding process was fair, but found it "a little bit forbidding," because she sometimes had questions that she wanted to ask Liu, but was unable to do so because of the county's strict rules on "cone of silence."
    Wilcox of PULSE, who never ranked RUDG No. 1, also said the process was "fair." He noted that the highly vocal pastors had been silent during the bidding process and only started complaining after the original vote was taken. He noted they never showed up for the selection committee meetings (which were open to the public, though without much notification of their scheduling), and no one filed a formal bid protest.
    After Related Urban presented its plans to residents last month and heard enthusiastic responses, Sara Smith announced that she too was joining the Related bandwagon and urged commissioners to pick the developer as the desired choice of Liberty Square's residents.
    Rev. Willis said he still thinks that the nonprofit Community Housing Parnters would have been the best choice. "I'm not quite ready to throw in the towel," he said recently, but he didn't want to appear as a "sour grapes" loser and wasn't planning a vocal protest before the commission.
    On Related Urban, "they've done a great sales job," Willis said.
Audrey Edmonson
Commissioner Audrey Edmonson has also complained loudly about the bidding process. She's such a friend of Atlantic Pacific that the company recently named an affordable housing development after her, but when I asked her at a Liberty Square meeting what specifically she disliked in the Related Urban plan, she said she had no complaints about the plan itself -- only the way it was selected.
       Going forward, the larger issue is tracking the promises on jobs, education and other aspects of community building.
    "If not, then you just build another ghetto," Willis said.
    Wilcox says he and some other Liberty City leaders met with Mayor Gimenez after he selected Related Urban as the winner and discussed the $46 million that the developer plans to return to the county over time. 

                      Return Money to Liberty City  

     The Liberty City group said it was only right that that money be plowed back into the Liberty City area.
    Wilcox said the mayor was sympathetic and said he'd like to see a substantial amount of that sum returned to Liberty City, but the way politics worked in Miami-Dade, each commissioner probably would insist on a slice for his/her own district.
    (Michael Hernandez, the mayor's spokesman, said that account is accurate.)
    In the long run, Wilcox added, people should understand that the original intent of public housing was a temporary home until people "get on their feet," but that over time many Liberty Square residents have come to think of the projects as a home for multi-generations -- a "family tradition."
    "That mindset," Wilcox said, "has to change."

Published May 12, 2016

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