Miami-Dade County

Feds move ahead on housing takeover

The federal government wants to take over much of the Miami-Dade Housing Agency and ultimately turn it over to an independent local board instead of the mayor and County Commission, according to a draft plan sent to county leaders.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gave the county 30 days to comment on the proposal, but county commissioners said the federal seizure may be inevitable even as they voted almost unanimously Tuesday to oppose a takeover.

'The word `cooperative' is in there, but I'm not sure it's really cooperative,'' said Commissioner Carlos Gimenez. ``Like in The Godfather -- an offer you can't refuse.''

The draft is written as a cooperative agreement, but Mayor Carlos Alvarez and commissioners have always acknowledged that HUD has the right to take control of federally funded programs such as public housing, Section 8 rental assistance and HOPE VI construction plans, including the long-delayed redevelopment of the former Scott-Carver housing projects.

''We're going to have to accept the fact that U.S. HUD has a strong hand here,'' said County Manager George Burgess.

Only Commissioner Javier Souto dissented from the commission's vote to oppose a takeover.

PROPOSALS

Among the proposals in HUD's draft: The county would turn over control of the Housing Agency's assets, projects and programs to HUD, including the title to properties and any employee pension funds. HUD would appoint a manager to oversee the department.

 The county would create an independent group that would write a charter for the agency and eventually become its board of governors. When the federal takeover ends, that board -- rather than Alvarez or the County Commission -- would control the Housing Agency's budget and operations. The HUD plan did not specify who within county government would appoint members of the new board.

 The county would repay any federal funds that HUD determines were misspent, as well as reimburse HUD for the cost of a recent audit performed by Deloitte and Touche.

 The county would hire an accounting firm to recommend new financial management practices.

The takeover would last until the HUD secretary determines the agency ``has built sufficient capacity to be self-supportive.''

The housing agency has been under intense scrutiny since last spring, when The Miami Herald's House of Lies series exposed deep problems in federally and locally funded programs: developers who were given county land and money to build affordable homes but produced little; conflicts of interest among department officials; and haphazard management of money and programs.

Since then, county leaders have acknowledged the problems and said they have taken extraordinary measures to rehabilitate the system. Nearly $20 million in deals with deadbeat contractors were canceled; regulations for affordable-housing programs were rewritten; and the department's entire management team was replaced.

''We've made tremendous strides, but somehow it hasn't gotten to them,'' Gimenez said.

Alvarez and most commissioners have passionately opposed a federal takeover, saying they are doing all that can be done. Alvarez and others have flown to Washington twice to lobby administration and congressional leaders.

The HUD plan did not address the massive affordable-housing programs funded with local, rather than federal, dollars. Burgess said the commission would ultimately decide what to do with those programs but said he believes a HUD takeover would apply ''strictly and exclusively'' to federal programs.

The local programs, such as the county's infill housing initiative to build affordable homes on county-owned property, could be transferred to other county departments.

`NOT A BAD THING'

Burgess stressed that he still hopes to avoid a full takeover and wants to negotiate a more cooperative arrangement with technical assistance from HUD.

''We have to do everything we can to reach something we all can agree on,'' Burgess said. ``Having them with us is not a bad thing; it's a good thing.''

Numerous commissioners questioned why HUD, which receives routine reports on housing operations across the country, had accepted no blame for the years of neglect and mismanagement in Miami-Dade.

''This is not just on our shoulders,'' said Commissioner Sally Heyman. ``They were there, too, and were remiss in handling responsibilities.''

The department's new director, Kris Warren, is a former HUD employee who said she suspects the federal government is being disingenuous with its offers of cooperation. She said last week's on-site review of the local agency's operations was ``not as fair as an audit normally is.''

She suggested the county hire a law firm with experience dealing with HUD.

''I don't believe HUD is playing fair,'' said Warren, who was hired three months ago. ``If we don't take a stand and move quickly, we're going to lose.''

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