Miami-Dade County

In battle to close Miami’s wealth gap, even churches can be an obstacle

Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Jordan, center, addresses the “State of Black Miami Forum” on Wednesday. To her right is Daniella Pierre, a board member of the Miami-Dade branch of the NAACP, and to her left is Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert.
Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Jordan, center, addresses the “State of Black Miami Forum” on Wednesday. To her right is Daniella Pierre, a board member of the Miami-Dade branch of the NAACP, and to her left is Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert. DOUGLAS HANKS

In the quest to fix Miami’s housing gap between rich and poor neighborhoods, even churches can be part of the problem.

At a forum Wednesday focused on “The State of Black Miami,” a top advocate for expanding prosperity into minority neighborhoods said one hurdle comes from seldom-used churches taking up valuable land.

“I don’t want to offend any pastors we have out there. But we have too many churches and not enough beds,” Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Jordan told the audience at Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens. “When you count the number of churches where the doors are closed and it meets twice a month, that is not a church that is really serving the community. It’s taking dollars off the tax roll.”

People in Aventura, Coral Gables and Miami Beach may not want the people working in their hotels, and in their restaurants, living in their neighborhoods. … That’s really not my problem.

Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert

Jordan made her comments during a discussion on community development in Miami-Dade, with a debate over how best to spread prosperity from the affluent enclaves of the county to majority-black neighborhoods where incomes and homeownership levels lag. Jordan and others noted that while housing can be affordable in poorer neighborhoods, Miami-Dade shouldn’t allow developers and public-housing agencies to cram all low-cost options into certain areas of town.

“People living in Miami Gardens, North Miami, Hialeah, Opa-locka, they go to work in downtown Miami and on Miami Beach,” said Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert. “We need to actively make sure that workforce housing goes where working people are actually working.

“People in Aventura, Coral Gables and Miami Beach may not want the people working in their hotels, and in their restaurants, living in their neighborhoods,” he said. “That’s really not my problem.”

I don’t want to offend any pastors we have out there. But we have too many churches and not enough beds.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Jordan

Black residents make up about 18 percent of the county’s population, through communities that include African Americans and Caribbean Americans, with a concentration of people with roots in Haiti and the Bahamas. The ethnic mix has further complicated efforts to pursue a common agenda, said Jean Monestime, the Miami-Dade commissioner who organized the event.

“Though we as black people share a common heritage, we seldom unite in pursuit of shared interests,” said Monestime, the commission’s first Haitian-American member.

Jordan last year proposed a county law requiring developers of new projects to either set aside a portion of homes for working-class buyers or pay into a fund to subsidize similar units elsewhere. In exchange, Miami-Dade would let the developers build beyond density restrictions in zoning codes.

Developers successfully fought the legislation, which died in late 2016. The proposal was part of Jordan’s campaign to bolster black homeownership and combat the expansion of high-end housing into some of Miami’s working-class black neighborhoods — a trend often called “gentrification.”

Jihad Rashid, head of a nonprofit focused on neighborhood revitalization, said affordable housing remains the cornerstone of prosperity for most communities.

“You increase your educational attainment with affordable, decent, stable housing,” said Rashid, CEO of Collaborative Development Corp. in Coconut Grove. “You tamp down family dysfunction with stable homes. You increase job sustainability with affordable housing.”

Jordan said Miami-Dade’s black communities need more homeownership, rather than just affordable housing. “We also have too many renters and not enough homeowners,” she said.

In neighborhoods where seldom-used churches are common, Jordan said there’s a double downside: Not only is the land not available for a more active commercial use that could bring life to the area, churches — like all nonprofits — don’t pay property taxes on real estate they own.

“If we’re having a church that’s really engaged in communities, and truly making a difference in delivering what we’re supposed to be delivering, I’m for churches 100 percent,” she said. “But not just for the purpose of taking dollars off of the tax dollars.”

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