Mixed Income Hard at Liberty Square

Mixed income at Liberty Square "not realistic"

UPDATED 7/27 at 5:45 pm

By John Dorschner

     Hopes that a revitalized Liberty Square will include  mixed-income housing just aren't realistic, says a veteran affordable housing expert.
    "You can always do affordable housing in a low-income area," says Doug Mayer. "But are you going to entice other people to come to Liberty City" to rent market-rate apartments? "It's not very realistic."
Doug Mayer

    Mayer, president of Stone Soup Development, has long been associated with nonprofit developers of affordable housing. Earlier this year, he met several times with the Liberty Square residents' council to discuss their ideas for  Mayor Carlos Gimenez's idea for a $200-million plus redo of  Liberty Square, which currently has 700-plus units.
    The mixed-income issue is critical because many sociologists and New Urban city planners believe that segregating low-income residents in large projects is a recipe for economic failure -- with so many single mothers on welfare and children who can't see alternative ways of life around them. 

                       "HEART IN RIGHT PLACE"
    "I believe Michael's heart is in the right place," Mayer says, referring to Michael Liu, the county director of public housing who arrived in Miami last year.

     But Mayer believes that getting middle class residents to move to Liberty City is not a likely scenario.  He says: "If my mixed income the county means a mix of affordable units, that is some at 33 percent, 60 percent, 80 percent of average median income, perhaps at 120 percent of AMI, that is possible, but true market-rate units are not likely to succeed."
    At present, a county panel is evaluating the plans of six companies bidding to redo Liberty Square. "It will be very interesting to see what they come up," Mayer says.
    He believes the chances for mixed-use -- retail as well as residential -- makes sense, particularly along the well traveled streets on the edges of the project. 
    Mayer thinks it would be better to set aside 150 to 200 units in the redevelopment for home ownership, which would require government subsidies, and some could use Section 8 vouchers for mortgage payments.
       These owners would likely still be low-income -- perhaps 80 percent of the poverty level -- but they would likely be persons who have jobs, albeit low-paying, and would add some economic diversity to the ultra-low-income profile of current residents, many of whom have income at 30 or 40 percent of the poverty level.
    Mayer originally pitched the county on another idea: Putting its developer's fee of 30 percent back into Liberty Square, allowing for desperately needed social services that would make the revitalized pubic housing project more than just a bunch of new buildings.
    "Unfortunately, the county decided to take the developer's fee," Mayer says.

                          LACK OF SOCIAL SERVICES
    Lack of social services is a crucial issue for Liberty Square. After the 1980 riots, state and federal commissions vowed to change the dire poverty and unemployment in the project commonly known as Pork 'n' Beans. But the latest census data shows that the poverty is still as bad as it always was.
    "I've been in Miami for over 30 years. There have been promises made every four or five years for Liberty City and Overtown," Mayer says. Sometimes the money isn't available. Other times, the money "doesn't get to the right people, or the programs don't really benefit the community."
    For the remake of Liberty Square, Mayer hopes that one of the two nonprofit bidders is selected for what the mayor calls Liberty Square Rising.

                            NONPROFITS HAVE HEART
    "I have worked for nonprofits my whole career," says Mayer, including a time with Carrfour Supportive Housing, one of the bidders. "Their heart is in the right place, especially in a project like this. ... 
    "A lot of different people can put up the buildings but when the rubber hits the road," about what's best for residents, that's a different story.
    He's particularly interested in the bid of Community Housing Partners, a large Virginia nonprofit with 40 years of experience. For Liberty Square, it's partnering with local groups, including an alliance of pastors led by R. Joaquin Willis, pastor of Church of the Open Door in Liberty City.
    The nonprofits are likely to face stiff competition from two politically connected for-profit companies: RUDG, a subsidiary of the Related Group, led by the powerful Jorge Perez, and Atlantic Pacific Communities, which has taken over some properties and executives of the Carlisle Development Group, which is under federal investigation.
    For-profit companies "will do it in the most expeditious way to get their profit, but sometimes it's not the best way," Mayer says.
    He cites the remodeling of the Royalton Hotel, a 1920s structure in downtown Miami redone as affordable housing units for the elderly. The work was a partnership between the nonprofit Carrfour and the for-profit Carlisle. Carlisle was able to call the shots because it had gotten most of the funds for the work.
    "The original windows were steel casements. Carlisle's position was 'We don't have to replace the windows. We'll just put the hurricane glass inside.' Carlisle didn't care. Once it was rehabbed," it was done with the project.
    "Two years later, the windows were leaking," Mayer recalls. Carrfour had to replace them at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars.

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