Miami-Dade County

County abandoning Miami public housing complex made ‘toxic’ by mold, asbestos

Downtown Miami, where Miami-Dade is closing one of its public housing complexes in the heart of the urban core.
Downtown Miami, where Miami-Dade is closing one of its public housing complexes in the heart of the urban core.

Declaring the building’s mold, asbestos and other defects unfixable, Miami-Dade County is preparing to move more than 100 families and elderly residents out of a public housing complex in downtown Miami.

The decision to abandon the 154-unit Harry Cain Tower follows years of resident complaints about substandard conditions in the 15-story building that opened in 1984.

A recent inspection report confirmed severe problems with asbestos and lead paint, causing “toxic indoor air,” according to Michael Liu, director of Miam-Dade’s Department of Public Housing and Community Development. The report recommended the county give “serious consideration” to moving residents, prompting the rare decision to quickly close a public-housing complex.

The county will begin one-on-one meetings with residents Thursday to begin placing them in vacant apartments elsewhere using federal rent vouchers under the Section 8 program. Miami-Dade also will provide money for deposits, moving expenses and utility hook-ups to ease the strain of leaving Harry Cain for apartments owned by private landlords, said Liu.

“There’s availability,” Liu said Wednesday night, hours after the agency held a group meeting with residents in a community room where the air-conditioning no longer works. “We’re going to provide them with intensive counseling. They’re not going to be left on their own.”

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Abandoning Harry Cain is the most drastic evidence yet of the county’s long-term struggle to maintain a public-housing system that relies on federal funds for construction and maintenance for about 9,700 units reserved for low-income residents. The proposed 2020 budget lists $420 million in deferred maintenance and needed repairs for the county’s public housing system.

“The whole point is we don’t have the money,” Liu said. “How are you going to have an effective preventive maintenance program to avoid all these problems?”

Liu blamed the Harry Cain situation on long-term issues that left the building beyond repair, citing widespread water intrusion, and floors and ceilings filled with asbestos and lead paint. “It’s no secret the building is in terrible shape,” he said. “It probably wasn’t constructed very well to begin with.”

The county is hoping to use a new federal program allowing it to tap more private dollars for public housing complexes. Its oldest public housing complex, Liberty Square, is being demolished and rebuilt through a deal with for-profit developer Related Group, which has boosted the number of public housing units there while generating more revenue through construction of apartments targeting tenants able to pay higher rents.

Even with the prospect of new homes somewhere in Miami-Dade, the Harry Cain residents will be leaving a rare enclave of low-income housing in the heart of Miami, walking distance to the free Metromover system and close to shops and restaurants.

The disruption also comes amid a worsening gap between average incomes in Miami and the cost of housing. At Wednesday’s meeting, participants said county administrators told residents they could have priority for another housing complex being developed nearby but the project won’t be finished for three years.

“The residents are ready to live in a nicer building,” said Eileen Higgins, the county commissioner whose district includes Harry Cain at 490 NE Second Ave. “This building has to be gutted. It can’t be one apartment at a time.”

Miami Herald staff writer Joey Flechas contributed to this report.