TOWN HALL MEETING

Promises aplenty at Dade housing agency meeting
Top officials promise swift changes to Dade's housing agency and swift justice for wrongdoers

As an energetic crowd fired off questions about the tattered Miami-Dade Housing Agency Sunday, County Manager George Burgess promised swift changes for the agency and State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle said arrests are coming for those who acted illegally.

But those pledges, made during a town hall meeting at the Lyric Theater in Miami, did little to soothe residents frustrated and angered by revelations in The Miami Herald's House of Lies series last month. The series showed how millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on housing projects that have not yet been built.

At Sunday's meeting, organized by The Miami Herald, WFOR-CBS4 and NewsTalk 1080-AM, residents and community activists shouted questions from their seats and heckled Burgess when he tried to answer. At one point, activist Tony Romano from the Miami Workers Center and others around him disrupted the meeting by chanting, "Housing now! Housing now!"

It prompted moderator Eliott Rodriguez from WFOR-CBS4 and U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek to plead with audience members to remain orderly.

Residents demanded to know why Burgess did not detect the corruption in the housing agency sooner.

Burgess laid the blame on "a few bad apples."

"People sometimes figure out ways to cheat, ways to beat the system and hide it," Burgess said, noting that he began to implement changes in the agency before the House of Lies series appeared.

"I don't like failure, and I don't like failing you," Burgess said. "These housing issues are with me 24 hours a day."

Burgess removed seven Housing Agency officials after reading the investigative series. He has launched a national search for a new director and said more staffing changes are coming.

The Miami-Dade Police Department's office of public corruption, the state attorney's office and the county's inspector general are all investigating the Housing Agency.

"If we follow dollars into greedy pockets where they don't belong, very shortly you will see people locked up," Fernández Rundle said.

Other panelists included County Commissioner Katy Sorenson, former Congresswoman Carrie Meek, Miami Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Anne Manning, Burgess advisor Cynthia Curry, public housing resident Andrea Williams and Miami Herald reporter Debbie Cenziper.

Williams, a 23-year-old mother of two, told how she was relocated from the James Scott housing project to the Liberty Square project. The county promised to let her move back when it completed a tract of new affordable housing where the Scott Homes once stood.

Instead, the Housing Agency spent millions of dollars on architects, project managers and consultants. The project stalled, and, six years later, 800 families remain displaced.

"I've been lied to so many times," Williams said.

Miami resident Juan Pintado said Sunday's meeting was a good start. But he said officials must do more than provide lip service if they want to regain the community's trust.

"You can only be so satisfied hearing words," Pintado said. "I'd be satisfied in seeing results. I hope what the state attorney says is true."