Miami Fights to Keep Control of Housing Authority
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
The Public Housing Authority in Miami is a mess. That's not opinion but a fact, one that nearly everyone - activists, local and federal officials - agree on. The problems burst into full view last summer when the Miami Herald found that over the last six years, Miami's Housing Agency spent $22 million and delivered just three new homes. NPR's Greg Allen reports the dispute now is not about the mess but over who will clean it up.
GREG ALLEN: For a vivid demonstration of what's wrong with public housing in Miami, you need only visit the area in Liberty City where dozens of acres of vacant land is all that's left of the Scott Carver Homes, once an 850-unit housing project.
Ms. CAPRICE BROWN: My address was 2341 Northwest 72nd Street, right across the street over there in the empty lots.
ALLEN: Three years ago, Caprice Brown says she and her three kids were told they'd have to move out. The dilapidated Scott Carver Homes were being torn down to make way for a new housing project. Brown says she was given vouchers to find temporary quarters and told she'd be back in a brand-new home in a matter of months.
Ms. BROWN: They told us around about the year of 2005 that everything would be built up and completed, and we can come back. As you can see, the lots are empty. Nothing has been done. They lied. Everything they told us was a lie.
ALLEN: Three years later, plans for the replacement to Scott Carver are still on the drawing board. While new luxury condo projects dot the skyline, in Miami there's an acute shortage of affordable housing. Despite that, the complaints of former public housing residents and community activists drew little attention until a series of articles in the Miami Herald documented a pattern of mismanagement and corruption at the nation's sixth-largest housing authority.
Among the findings: Millions of dollars had been handed out to developers who promised to build affordable housing but delivered nothing. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez says what happened is clear.
Mayor CARLOS ALVAREZ (Miami-Dade): The agency had been mismanaged, and you know, some folks will say, well, why did it go on? Because you had people at the highest levels that were just obstructing and not telling the truth.
ALLEN: Alvarez has been mayor since 2004, and many of the problems developed on his watch. He says he became aware there was trouble at the housing agency months before the Miami Herald series and had already begun taking action, but it wasn't until after the story broke that Miami-Dade began demanding developers return public housing money.
The county canceled $18 million in contracts, is prosecuting two developers for misuse of funds, and the investigation is just getting underway. Alvarez says his administration has also sent the old guard packing.
Mayor ALVAREZ: There's nobody left in that agency at that level, none. There's nobody left. It's easy to Monday morning quarterback. The fact of the matter is we uncovered it, and we've taken very aggressive action in order to rectify the situation.
ALLEN: In reorganizing the agency, the county has hired several new managers and has begun taking a more active role in overseeing its finances. Who ultimately sorts out Miami's housing mess will be decided by policy but also by personalities. A key figure at HUD, Assistant Secretary Orlando Cabrera, is a Miamian and former head at the Latin Builders Association here.
Alvarez and other local officials say in phone calls, Cabrera has threatened a federal takeover of the housing agency. Cabrera wasn't available to talk for this story, but his deputy, Bilan Ozimek(ph), says he doesn't yet see signs that Miami can fix its housing agency on its own.
Mr. BILAN OZIMEK (Department of Housing and Urban Development): I don't, to be quite honest with you. While I think the department is pleased with some of the changes that are occurring, I'm not sure that we know whether or not it's sufficient enough.
ALLEN: HUD investigators have been spending time in Miami in recent days observing operations and going over the books. The federal agency says it should have a decision soon on what if any additional role it will play in overseeing Miami's public housing. For his part, Mayor Alvarez has been spending time in Washington, lobbying members of Congress to oppose or at least postpone a federal takeover.
Mayor ALVAREZ: There's always time to take over. We're not going anywhere. I mean, give us an opportunity to do our job, and if we don't do it in six months or in a year, or if we haven't made significant progress, take it over.
ALLEN: Mayor Alvarez has been mending fences in Miami as well. Last week he joined with some former adversaries, housing activists, at a news conference to announce a new plan to replace the demolished Scott Carver Homes, and at the same time to join forces in opposing a federal takeover.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.