Miami-Dade County

What does one talk about when stuck with Ben Carson in an elevator?

HUD secretary Carson: Government is encouraging use of private funding for public housing

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson visited several locations around the city of Miami on April 12, 2017.
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Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson visited several locations around the city of Miami on April 12, 2017.

Six people and the secretary of the federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development crowded into an elevator, pushed the button to go up to the third floor of the Courtside Apartments, and waited.

And waited.

And the next thing anyone knew, Ben Carson was stuck in an elevator.

In Miami Wednesday to start a two-day whirlwind tour, Donald Trump’s head housing honcho spent most of the day visiting public housing projects and rubbing elbows with South Florida’s poor and politicians alike. He played billiards at a senior housing complex in Allapattah, and foosball with Miami-Dade’s housing director in Overtown.

Carson even delivered some crucial paperwork around noon to Miami developer Jorge Pérez that allows his Related Urban Development Group to begin demolishing old row houses as part of a $300 million redevelopment of Liberty Square, Miami-Dade’s oldest public housing complex. The project, which will take four or five years to complete, is arguably the biggest public housing endeavor in Miami-Dade County since Liberty Square was first developed 80 years ago.

“This has got to succeed,” Carson said, touting the public-private project as the future of public housing. “It will be a great model for a lot of other places. This is a notorious public housing development and if it can be done here we should be able to do it everywhere.”

But whether because of the nervous, towering presence of Miami Heat executive and Courtside landlord Alonzo Mourning, or more likely the $6 billion in cuts proposed for HUD in 2018, Carson’s time in Miami seems destined to be defined by the 20 minutes he spent stuck in an elevator in Overtown.

“Sec. Ben Carson is stuck in [a] public housing elevator in Miami right now,” pundit Ana Navarro tweeted Wednesday morning. “I am not making this up.”

It was great to have such a captive audience

Matthew Rieger, Housing Trust Group CEO

The incident, quickly panned in the national media, seemed like high irony. Under Carson, HUD may eliminate HOME funds and community development block grants, which help support affordable housing projects and community programs around the country. The city of Miami alone is bracing for $4 million in losses to programs that fund senior meals and business upgrades. Miami-Dade’s homeless providers worry rental assistance for women and children could be cut.

But in reality, those funds have little-to-nothing to do with the elevator Carson shared Wednesday in Overtown with county housing director Michael Liu and Matthew Rieger, the CEO of Courtside developer Housing Trust Group. The proposed budget cuts didn’t even come up in the cramped quarters, says Liu, who doesn’t know to what extent Miami-Dade County would be affected.

“It just happened. Not a big deal,” said Rieger, who says the elevator wasn’t broken, but probably just overloaded. “But it was great to have such a captive audience.”

Rieger, whose company financed the $22.8 million affordable housing complex with tax credits, tax exempt bonds, a county surtax loan and grants from an Overtown redevelopment agency, said he spent the time talking with Carson about the importance of tax credits, which are issued through the federal treasury department. They even talked about action movies: Rieger likes “Die Hard;” Carson prefers “True Lies.”

“There was no panicking. Everyone was cool,” said Rieger, who was eventually freed when firefighters and police officers forced open the elevator doors.

Carson took the incident in good spirits, smiling as he emerged from the elevator. Mourning, who missed the elevator ride because he ran a little late for Carson’s visit, apologized profusely.

“I’m sure you guys know where to find me,” Mourning told Carson by way of apology before the secretary left for his second stop of the day at Collins Park Apartments in Allapattah.

When he arrived, Carson was led into another elevator.

“Do we have the key?” he asked.

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