Aug. 2 Activists working for affordable housing in Florida were not shocked by recent media reports about widespread corruption within the Miami-Dade Housing Agency, in which millions of dollars marked for affordable housing were allegedly misused, lost and given to developers who never built anything.
"Weve been basically concerned and fighting for real justice for about six years now and sounding the alarm that the moneys funny," said Sushma Sheth of the Miami Workers Center, an anti-poverty community-organizing group. "And also sounding the alarm about whatever kind of dreams they were trying to sell these residents that this in fact was not going to come true."
Sheths suspicions and the repeated warnings from housing groups finally garnered public attention last month when the Miami Herald ran a four-part investigative series uncovering massive abuse of public funds. Much of the mishandled money came from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and was funneled through the Miami-Dade Housing Agency.
The Heralds investigation, published after seven months of research, found that the Housing Agency pledged more than $87 million to build more than 72 developments about 8,300 new homes for low-income residents. But only 14 projects, or 2,681 units, have been completed. Thirty developments have been canceled completely and another 28 are still in pre-development or construction.
According to the latest US Census figures, about 19 percent of the Miami-Dade population lives below the federal poverty level which is $20,000 for a family of four compared to 12.5 percent nationally. Housing-rights activists also say the area has been deluged with high-end housing and condo development few can afford. According to the Florida Housing Data Clearinghouse, a public records project managed by the University of Florida, the average price for a single-family home in 2004 was $328,758.
The Herald also found that some developers were granted public lands and construction loans by the county to build homes for low-income residents but instead "flipped" the properties, selling them at a high price to investors or wealthy buyers.
The agency itself was engaging in shady business practices, including diverting $5 million earmarked for affordable housing to finance a new office building. The Miami-Dade Housing Agency Development Corp., a nonprofit created by the county commission to develop affordable housing, also only managed to finish one out of seventeen projects: a 100-unit apartment complex for seniors that finished months behind schedule, and which critics say was shoddily constructed.
As a result of the lax construction, hundreds of families have been left in limbo, housing-rights groups say, doubling or tripling up in apartments or moving from housing project to housing project as they wait for the homes the county promised them would be built.
Mary Nesbitt, 63, was among more than 800 households the Housing Authority removed from the historic Scott-Carver housing project on Miamis Northwest side. The Housing Agency had launched a project to demolish the existing barracks-style public housing and redevelop the area with more townhouses and single-family homes. While new housing was supposedly being built, the agency gave Scott-Carver residents the option of using vouchers to rent private-market dwellings or to move into other public housing.
"Were beyond a crisis. Its a complete disaster at this point, because whatever minimal means was there to rectify it, those even have been sold out."
"When I moved, I cried for a whole week; I was just that hurt that I had to move," Nesbitt told The NewStandard. "And even up until today, I dont have curtains at none of my bedroom windows, because I didnt think I was going to be here that long and I wanted to get my new curtains to go in my new home."
Six years later, the Scott-Carver area is "a vacant wasteland" said Sheth, with construction rubble and boarded-up buildings filling the place that several generations used to call home.
Nesbitt, who had lived in the housing project for 28 years, said many of the Scott-Carver residents, including her own daughter, were forced to move out of the neighborhood, shattering a community that had been there for several generations.
Nesbitt and more than 200 housing-rights activists and low-income residents rallied at County Hall last Friday, denouncing County Commission Chair Joe Martinezs decision to form an ad-hoc committee of fellow lawmakers to further study the issues raised by the Herald before acting. The activists had called for an emergency public meeting to be held before the commissioners, but it was rejected by the majority of the governing body.
County Manager George Burgess has fired a number of Housing Authority officials, including the former director, and has promised a thorough investigation. But housing-rights advocates and low-income residents are wary of trusting that the very officials who permitted the abuses to linger will adequately address the problems.
Couch said it is easy for lawmakers to neglect low-income communities because "they dont necessarily have a political voice."
"We really need civilian oversight over both spending and planning around housing development," Sheth told TNS. "So we would need something with subpoena power and hearing powers to kind of deliberate and monitor this level of capital, this level of planning thats impacting such a broad section of the population."
Even without the corruption, added Sheth, the previous system was insufficient to meet the needs of Miamis low-income residents. "Miamis been in an affordable-housing crisis for some years now, and these monies whatever millions of dollars the Housing Agency had was going to be the band-aid to that solution," Sheth said. "Whats happened now is that very band-aid now no longer exists and is defunct. Were beyond a crisis. Its a complete disaster at this point, because whatever minimal means was there to rectify it, those even have been sold out."
As Miami-Dade officials express shock and dismay about the corruption, Linda Couch, deputy director of the National Low-income Housing Coalition, questioned where all the whistleblowers have been over the last several years.
"You have the county, you have the city, you have housing authority employees themselves," said Couch, "and you have HUD, the HUD inspector general, [and] no one was turned on to this?"
Despite the clear need for affordable housing in the Miami-Dade area and the pattern of neglect within the Housing Agency, Couch said it is easy for lawmakers to neglect low-income communities because "they dont necessarily have a political voice."
In a press release issued last Friday, HUD Assistant Secretary Orlando Cabrera said the agency encourages "local initiatives when problems like this emerge" and that HUD "stands with" County Chair Martinez in his efforts. But HUD itself acknowledges that it only reprimanded Miami-Dade housing officials last January for "foot-dragging" on $35 million in federal funds issued to the county in 1999 for affordable housing.
According to an analysis of HUD data from the National Low-income Housing Coalition, as of 2003, more than 95,000 people in Miami-Dade county were on waiting lists for either public housing or Section 8 vouchers, which help the poor pay for rentals in the private market. Couch said waiting lists that are still open may be up to 10 years long.