Miami-Dade County

Dade housing reforms are bearing fruit

The houses are sprouting like a carefully planted flower garden, neat rows of blue and green and orange where this summer there was only dirt. Two dozen new homes are under construction on the site of the old Scott-Carver public housing projects, with five others already finished and 28 more planned.

Built by Habitat for Humanity, each has a white sign engraved with a new owner's name: ''The Jones House,'' ''The Williams House,'' ``The Brown House.''

Many lived on this land when it held 850 public-housing units, exiled years ago when the government promised to build new houses and sell them at affordable prices.

Like so many of Miami-Dade County's other affordable-housing plans, it was hobbled by mismanagement, waste and incessant delays. As recently as last July, when The Miami Herald began to expose the problems in its ''House of Lies'' series, only three homes had been built on the property, which was a wasteland of boarded-up, barracks-style buildings.

As the year ends, however, steady progress on numerous housing programs is symbolized by the slow rebirth of this Liberty City neighborhood.

''I've been waiting for this for a long time,'' said LaWanda Owens, a fast-food cook who moved into her three-bedroom house with her three daughters. ``This is a blessing to stop renting and have a stable place to live.''

Outrage over the housing scandals prompted large protests, including a rainy overnight demonstration outside county hall in September. Activists demanded an immediate infusion of $200 million, which commissioners told County Manager George Burgess to explore.

In the last four months, the county has closed more than $5 million in construction loans with developers building five new affordable-housing projects -- projects planned to produce 356 units. Some other long-delayed developments have been canceled, with $5.7 million reclaimed since September, according to a sweeping update memo written earlier this month by the county manager.

Nearly 150 public-housing units that were in unlivable disrepair have been cleaned up and occupied, with 350 more being repaired by county staff members and nearly 500 more being bundled into contracts for private companies to repair.

But the immediate progress is hardly enough to dent the list of 41,000 families waiting for affordable housing, and many leaders believe that deep procedural changes will be necessary to catch up.

Indeed, affordable housing is being squeezed at a time Miami-Dade is among the nation's least affordable places to live.

''From what I'm seeing with the county, there's just too much red tape, too much time just to get permits to develop these homes,'' said Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, whose district includes some of the county's most impoverished neighborhoods. ``A lot of the slow-down that is occurring is due to the county itself.''

Burgess hired a new leader for the Housing Authority, which was responsible for overseeing many of the troubled programs. The new director, Kris Warren, came from the Tampa Housing Authority and promptly hired away that agency's chief financial officer.

''There are fresh faces on the scene,'' said Cynthia Curry, a senior Burgess aide tapped to oversee the housing scandal. ``This is the massive reorganization of the Miami-Dade Housing Agency.''

Warren insisted she would resist political pressures in her new position; former Director Rene Rodriguez is being investigated for his ties to developers, some of whom paid him large consulting fees shortly after he left county government.

''I've always prided myself on being a straight shooter and very ethical,'' Warren said. ``I'm not going to stake my reputation or the reputation of this county on the line for a favor.''

Her agency is reviewing hundreds of lots in the county's troubled infill-housing program, which allows builders to acquire land cheaply to build homes that are sold below market value to low- and moderate-income families.

''This will include a recapture of money,'' Curry said.

Until recently, few homes were built through the infill program despite millions of taxpayer dollars going to developers. Even when houses were built, some developers bypassed the poor to sell to real-estate investors, buyers who owned more than one property or families who flipped the houses for a quick profit.

Developer Oscar Rivero was charged by the state attorney in October with using the agency's money to buy himself a South Miami house. Others are still being investigated.

Since September, 19 infill homes have been finished. The agency is trying to reclaim title to 59 of the 317 lots remaining in the program - 12 were voluntarily returned, 28 are being appealed by the developer, and the county is taking legal action to take the 19 others. At the remaining 258 lots, developers are being given strict timetables, according to Burgess' memo. About 124 of them are expected to be finished by July.

''I'm very confident we are moving in the right direction,'' said Mayor Carlos Alvarez. 'The whole agency needed to be gone through with a fine-tooth comb." Burgess' memo listed dozens of improvements, large and small, in the housing agency, including:

 Reviewing hundreds of lots across the county that could be used to build affordable housing.  Finalizing guidelines for a new $9 million subsidy program designed to help residents move out of public housing by providing one-time fees such as security and utility deposits.  Repairing or issuing contracts to repair $13 million in roof damage caused by Hurricane Wilma at 19 public-housing sites.  Reviewing staff use of cellphones, pagers, credit cards and cars; 57 phones have already been cut.  Removing a glass barrier and armed security guard at the public-housing application center, ``to facilitate a customer friendly environment.''

But some long-neglected programs will continue to hobble the housing agency, perhaps for years.

In addition to the infill developers fighting to keep their projects, numerous contracts for other affordable-housing projects are troubled. The county wants to recapture $600,000 from two of those contracts, but others are too far along in construction to cancel, according to Burgess' memo.

Hundreds of families forced out of Scott-Carver about 2001 are still off the county's radar, not living at the last address in government records.

Alvarez declined to set concrete short-term goals, except to say that he expects "drastic, noticeable, concrete changes" during 2007. He hopes to forecast a target number of new units when he meets with Burgess and Warren early next year.

''The problem is of such a magnitude,'' he said. ``I don't think anyone can say 100, 200, 400.''

He promised that Warren will have ``whatever support she needs to accomplish her mission.''

``The county is reaching out to make sure the Housing Agency does not fall apart, " Warren said. ``There will be a whole change in the agency's dynamic.''

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