Sharon Gregory was skeptical.
She had lived in a public housing unit in Miami-Dade County’s Liberty Square complex for 17 years. She had grown weary and frightened of the violence that plagued one of the oldest public housing projects in the U.S. She remembers the day 9-year-old Sherdavia Jenkins was shot while playing on her stoop on July 1, 2006.
When developers came around two years ago showing Gregory and her neighbors renderings of beautiful new apartment buildings that would replace their dilapidated homes, and promised they would not be displaced by the construction, Gregory didn’t believe them.
“I knew it wasn’t real,” Gregory, 63, said. “I knew they were not going to build anything like that for us. We’re public housing. They don’t do that for us.”
So on Saturday, when Gregory was handed the key to her brand new one-bedroom apartment in the first phase of the new Liberty Square project, and she opened the door and saw the polished floors and shiny appliances and a dishwasher she didn’t even know how to use, she burst into tears.
“From the ground up, I watched them build it,” said Gregory, who was relocated from her home on Northwest 65th Street to a different unit on 63rd Street during the construction. “I kept thinking they were never going to put us in there. And no way we were still going to pay the same rent. They had to be lying.”
But Gregory’s rent remains the same as it was before — $147 per month. She occupies one of the 73 public housing units that are part of the $46 million first phase of the Liberty Square development, which are reserved for households making less than 30 percent of the Miami-Dade area median income (or $17,790 for a one-person household).
There are also 121 affordable housing units (for households earning 60 percent of the area median income, or $36,000 for a one-person household) and 10 workforce housing units (for households earning up to 120 percent, or $71,150 for a one-person household).
Phase one of the project is located on the northwest corner of NW 15th Avenue and 67th Street.
When the final three phases are completed by 2023, the $300 million Liberty Square development will house a total of 1,455 units of all price ranges, from public housing to market rate. The six southern blocks of the site have been rezoned to allow for buildings as tall as eight stories, as well as commercial components such as a Publix supermarket.
“Liberty Square is the very first mixed-income project in Miami-Dade County that incorporates public, affordable, workforce and market-rate units under one plan,” said Albert Milo, president of Related Urban Development Group, the developer that partnered with the county on the Liberty Square project. “This was a key part of our proposal back in 2015 and every day we find more and more proof this was the right approach. This kind of innovative housing solution will be the only way to solve the housing affordability crisis that we are currently facing.”
Federal and county dollars cover most of the construction tab, with Related surrendering a portion of its developer fee to Miami-Dade as part of the negotiated deal with the Gimenez administration. For the $47 million construction of the completed Phase One complex, Related is set to receive a $4 million developer fee, according to the county’s Public Housing department. The county says another $2.7 million, which Related would otherwise collect as the developer of the project, goes back to Miami-Dade.
Financial documents filed with Miami-Dade emphasize how much the project relies on moving beyond public housing to bring in tenants who can afford to pay more each month. Of the $2.7 million in rental income predicted for the Phase Two complex under construction, nearly 80 percent will come from tenants not in public housing. A detailed rent breakdown was not available for the Phase One complex.
On Monday, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, public housing director Michael Liu, HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson and Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle were among the officials who spoke to a crowd of 300 people gathered under an open-air tent to celebrate the completion of phase one.
County Commission Chairwoman Audrey Edmonson, who represents the district and backed Related rival Atlantic Pacific for the Liberty Square contract in 2016, recalled Liberty City’s historic role at the center of the middle class for Miami’s African-American residents.
This “will be a renaissance of a part of Miami-Dade County that was once an epicenter for the black community,” said Edmonson, who grew up in the area and had siblings who went on to live in Liberty Square. “I know what it was like.”
Liberty City was the backdrop for “Moonlight,” the Oscar-winning movie about the challenges of growing up poor and black in Miami. The script makes a passing reference to Liberty Square’s notorious nickname, Pork ‘n Beans. In her remarks, Edmonson said the complex — one of the oldest in the United States — deserves more respect.
“Liberty Square is not the ‘pork ‘n beans,’” Edmonson said. “I will not be calling it that.”
Fernandez Rundle said the Liberty Square project has the potential to transform Liberty City, which has one of the highest crime rates in Miami-Dade.
“There is a direct correlation between substandard housing and violent crime,” she said. “This project really is a transformation. You are transforming lives and giving people hope for the future.”
People, for example, such as Gregory. The Liberty Square resident said before she was given the key to her new place, she was required to attend three workshops with some of her neighbors, where they were taught things like how to change the filter on the air conditioning unit or how to operate a dishwasher.
“You know those little balls of detergent?” she said, smiling. “I used to cut them open and pour them into the washer. Now I know you don’t need to do that. And they told me that if I tear up the dishwasher, I have to pay for the repair. These things are new to me. But I’m happy to be learning this stuff.”