Calling him “a great man,” Miami-Dade commissioners on Tuesday named a street in honor of José Milton, a Cuban-American developer who built more than 50,000 South Florida rental units — but also faced allegations of racial discrimination.
The U.S. Department of Justice twice accused Milton of discriminating against black apartment-seekers. Citing those cases, two black Miami-Dade commissioners passionately argued against the street naming, but it passed anyway. Unless Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez vetoes it, a portion of the Northwest 9500 block at the intersection with Fontainebleau Boulevard will now be called “José Milton Way.” The mayor’s office said he doesn’t intend to veto the naming.
Commissioners’ debate over the issue was tense.
“I will not support it, I cannot support it,” said Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, who spoke out against the renaming with Commissioner Barbara Jordan. “I see a pattern that went on.”
Edmonson, who is black, was joined by two other black commissioners, Jordan and Dennis Moss, in voting no. Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, who is white, also voted no.
“Mr. Milton’s company has an extensive record of discrimination,” Levine Cava said.
One of Milton’s sons, Cecil, later told the Herald that the focus on decades-old allegations was unfair. Cecil Milton said his father’s only mistake was not doing a better job training and monitoring his employees.
“My father was a builder, that’s what he loved to do, his passion was building,” Cecil Milton said. “He was not an administrator.”
Still, he said, “anybody who knew my father knew he was not a racist.”
The “yes” votes on the street renaming were Commission Chairman Jean Monestime (who is black), and commissioners Bruno Barreiro, Rebeca Sosa, Javier Souto, Juan Zapata, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, and Esteban Bovo, Jr..
Commissioners Sally Heyman and Xavier Suarez were absent.
Miami attorney Randall Berg, Jr., who sued Milton over discrimination issues, said he was “appalled” by Tuesday’s vote.
“Has the Miami-Dade Commission lost its mind?” he wrote in an e-mail.
The Miami Herald covered the discrimination case at Milton’s Beverly Hills Club Apartments in the mid-1990s. The North Miami Beach complex was accused of repeatedly turning away black apartment-seekers by falsely telling them that no apartments were available. The case ended with Milton’s company paying a $1.2 million settlement — which at the time represented the largest settlement ever paid to the U.S. Department of Justice in a rental housing discrimination case based on race.
“No American should be denied housing because of the color of their skin,”said then-U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey when the settlement was announced.
A few years earlier, the Justice Department had accused Milton of engaging in discrimination at that same Beverly Hills apartment complex — along with several other rental properties that he owned. That case was settled in 1989.
Flash forward to Tuesday’s commission meeting, and the Milton street naming was approved thanks largely to the support of Cuban-American commissioners, who make up the biggest voting block on the 13-member body. Those commissioners praised the Milton family’s history of donating money to county parks, as well as other charitable causes.
“He was a great man, helped this community…. Sometimes we’ve got to be very cautious as to what happened in the past,” said Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz, who co-sponsored the name change.
“It wasn’t even him,” Diaz said. “It was people that worked for him.”
Milton’s three sons, who showed up at County Hall to push for the street naming, also argued that the discrimination was done by rogue employees.
In the 1995 case, two ex-employees described things differently: Former rental agents Stacy Grosso and Edna Carrero testified that Cecil Milton said they shouldn't rent any more units to blacks at Beverly Hills because whites would avoid the complex and the property value would fall.
Asked about those ex-employee statements on Tuesday, Cecil Milton said “they were lying 100 percent.”
Both women had originally given statements denying they were told to discriminate.
José Milton was the son of Lebanese parents who emigrated to Cuba in the 1920s. When Milton left Cuba for Miami in 1963, all he had to his name was a single bag’s worth of possessions, his family said.
An architect by training, Milton built the J. Milton & Associates family business with an early focus on developing affordable, garden-style apartments. He later helped create the new Sunny Isles Beach skyline with high-rise projects such as Sands Pointe, Pinnacle, King David, Sayan and St. Tropez.
The primary sponsor of Tuesday’s name-change proposal was Souto, who talked about the forgiveness preached by Jesus in the Bible.
“No one here is perfect, only God is perfect,” Souto said. Of Milton, he said, “I believe that he tried, especially after he matured and he got to know how things work, being from another country.”
Commissioners were less understanding last year when the Hammocks Community Park's baseball field was to be renamed for popular youth coach Al Engle. The commission voted 9-2 to deny the honor based on a 1983 conviction for distribution of marijuana. Engle died in December 2013 and one observer recalled his widow left the commission in tears after the vote.
Among the No votes rejecting the youth coach were Diaz, Sosa and Souto — all of whom supported Tuesday’s street renaming for José Milton.
Milton died two years ago, at the age of 83. The Milton family donates frequently to political campaigns — both locally and nationally. Milton’s widow, Nilda, hosted a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in May.
One black commissioner, Haitian-American Jean Monestime, voted in favor of the street name change.
Monestime mentioned Milton’s track record of humanitarian work in Africa and Haiti, and said the developer proved over time that he was a “good corporate citizen.”
“As painful as this is, I think when people have made mistakes and are moving in the right direction, this must be encouraged,” he said.
Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this story.