Miami-Dade County

Proposal calls for more affordable housing

Citing massive breakdowns at the Miami-Dade Housing Agency, county leaders are pushing a host of emergency measures this week that would not only jump-start the construction of hundreds of homes for the poor but trigger a top-to-bottom overhaul of the county's affordable housing programs.

County Manager George Burgess is proposing nine recommendations to county commissioners, including the declaration of a state of emergency so the county can waive competitive bidding and quickly hire firms to rehabilitate vacant public housing units.

He also will ask commissioners at today's budget hearing to approve at least $15 million to pay for the repair work, upgrade lighting and fencing at housing complexes and provide immediate rental assistance to struggling families.

The money would come from the county's general fund -- marking the first time in at least a decade the county has used general-fund money to finance affordable housing.

Promised Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez: ``This is just the beginning.''

For months, a team of county administrators has scrutinized the Housing Agency, the sixth-largest in the nation, delivering a scathing review of its operations: widespread mismanagement; lack of basic oversight; poorly conceived policies; little staff training and ``weak to nonexistent records management.''

Overall, the team characterized the agency as having an ``unproductive and uninspired organizational culture.''

In a report released this week that mirrors many of the findings detailed by The Miami Herald's House of Lies investigation, published in July, the team found the Housing Agency failed to evaluate the skills and experience of developers -- one-third of all construction projects have been canceled.

''People who didn't have a clue on constructing anything were getting this money awarded to them,'' Alvarez said. ``That's something that needs to be changed.''

The team also found the Housing Agency overlooked fundamental policy to advance money to some developers before construction started. The Miami Herald found the agency in recent years paid more than $12 million to developers who never produced the homes they promised.

The team cited two additional cases, including one developer that received $701,000 in local construction money to rehabilitate an apartment complex. No work has been done; the case has been referred to the county's inspector general.

ORGANIZING FILES

Team members have spent weeks organizing the Housing Agency's scattered files for more than 380 construction projects. They've pushed for the design of a new computer system to better track contracts. They've crafted new policies to curb lengthy construction extensions; The Miami Herald found that on 12 projects alone, delays stretched a total of 13 years.

The management team also is preparing to cancel stalled projects or allow other builders to take over, noting that 41 percent of the projects funded before 2006 have not yet started.

Other recommendations: creating an affordable-housing review committee to identify government land suitable for building and using the county's 311 answer center to take calls from families who need help with housing.

''This report proves the commitment of Miami-Dade to seriously address the housing needs in the community,'' Burgess said in a written statement. ``I am proud of the efforts of the [management team] who have been working literally seven days a week to truly dissect the agency, figure out what was wrong and make recommendations.''

Burgess also will ask county commissioners to approve additional money for developers now working on 11 construction projects promising 1,400 new homes. He also wants permission to lobby the state for more affordable housing dollars.

One of Burgess' more controversial requests: spending up to $2.6 million on the troubled Ward Towers, a 100-bed assisted living facility for the low-income elderly.

The county launched the project six years ago, when the County Commission created the private nonprofit MDHA Development Corp. to apply for state funding, oversee the project and become the building's new owner.

CONTRACTOR LEAVES

But The Miami Herald found that delays and building breakdowns have hounded the $18 million project -- the county's first public housing complex built since the 1970s. After a payment dispute, contractor Delant Construction walked off the job, leaving the therapeutic pool unfinished.

In the report released this week, county officials defended the Ward Towers project, saying, 'the current conditions of the facility do not impede the residents' ability to live in a clean and safe environment.''

Yet Burgess is requesting as much as $1.7 million to settle up with the contractor, finish the pool and correct building deficiencies, including roof and window leaks and sidewalk cracks. Another $900,000 may be needed simply to make up for reductions in state housing money because of time delays.

Alvarez said he wants to determine who is to blame -- but he also wants to see the building fixed and finished.

''If not, we'll have an . . . empty pool for years and years to come,'' he said.

Sorting through the problems at the Housing Agency have been challenging, officials say, partly because housing records were scattered and often inconsistent.

In recent weeks, Burgess has submitted several updates to the mayor and County Commission, including a report in August that erroneously compared county data on construction projects to numbers reported in The Miami Herald.

Graciela Cespedes, the county's deputy finance director, acknowledged the discrepancies on Tuesday. The county, among other things, used different time periods and different types of projects to compare its data against the newspaper's -- creating two sets of diverging numbers.

MORE MONEY SOUGHT

Meanwhile, housing advocates have their own concerns. They say they support the county's efforts to crack down on developers and remake the Housing Agency, but say far more money is needed immediately to put poor families into homes. The county struggles with one of the nation's most dramatic affordable housing shortages, records show.

''There's no doubt that this is a great first step, but we are also in an unprecedented situation in terms of the housing need and the level of mismanagement and squandering of funds,'' said Sushma Sheth of the Miami Workers Center. ``That's going to call for some extreme measures. This isn't housing policy as usual.''

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