Miami-Dade County

Past housing failures cast doubt on Liberty Square redevelopment

Eric Thompson walking in Liberty Square
Eric Thompson walking in Liberty Square Miami Herald staff

For years, George Gibson says he watched his two adult sisters wait for Miami-Dade County to transfer them out of Liberty Square, the county’s oldest public-housing project, into larger, more modern units. This month, he says, they got their wish.

But Gibson isn’t celebrating. Rather, with plans under way to redevelop the sprawling complex, he’s skeptical of the timing.

“Why is it all of a sudden they want to move these people?” he asked Thursday, standing in the rain in the middle of the 709-unit community. “Once they leave they’re not going to come back. These people are going to have broken promises.”

Since quietly rolling out his ambitious Liberty Square Rising plans, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has been adamant that none of the 2,000 men, women and children currently living in substandard, subsidized apartments will be put out next year when construction begins. His housing director, Michael Liu, planned the redevelopment in phases so that few families will be asked to leave to make way for construction, and those who do will be moved into a newly built community two miles away.

But fears of displacement are deep-seated in Liberty Square. Some residents were among the hundreds forced out of homes 15 years ago in the James E. Scott project when the county rebuilt the community and promised tenants could return, only to run into a housing scandal. And no matter the guarantees, doubts and mistrust will likely remain until Gimenez proves true to his word — a process that will take years.

The latest reminder of distrust came Thursday, when the activist group Miami Workers Center gathered Gibson and a few other Liberty Square residents to denounce “secret displacements.” They questioned why Gimenez would ask developers to submit proposals for only 640 subsidized housing units, and said the county has suddenly approved a series of transfers and granted Section 8 vouchers to Liberty Square residents in order to reduce the number of Liberty Square tenants when the redevelopment begins.

“I know about the tricks Miami-Dade housing will use,” said Yvonne Stratford, who was among those booted out of the James E. Scott project, better known as Scott-Carver. “You think you’re moving into another house? Baby, you got another think coming.”

Reached by phone, Liu declined to comment. But his office has taken steps to avoid the mistakes of the past.

In the county’s competitive solicitation, developers were told that Liberty Square residents will receive first rights of refusal to reenter newly built public housing. The 640 public housing units required to be built are a minimum number, and just about equal to the current number of occupied units. Also, Liberty Square tenants council president Sara Alvin Smith and well-known inner city activist Nathaniel Wilcox sit on an nine-member committee that will recommend a developer to county commissioners.

“From the very beginning this has been an inclusive and collaborative process,” said Michael Hernández, Gimenez’s spokesman. “The Miami Workers Center should do a better job of working with the administration because we're all well-intentioned and want the same thing: a better, safer Liberty Square.”

As members of the Miami Workers Center stood in the rain Thursday, Smith, the tenants council president, sat nearby inside the Liberty Square Community Center. Event organizers, who accused the tenants council of being asleep at the wheel, asked her if they could use the center’s empty hall, but she refused.

To Smith, Thursday’s press conference was less about informing the community than stoking fears. Ahead of the event, residents of the community received fliers that intimated that Carlisle, an affordable housing developer under a cloud of scandal, was building the project, even though the county is still choosing among six bidders.

“If they’re going to be talking about anything happening over here with development, wait until they get the facts,” she said. “But don’t come over here and give our residents a scare tactic like they’re being thrown out the door, because they’re not.”

Smith said insinuations that the county is trying to reduce the number of people living in the community are ridiculous. Every month, about 60 vouchers open up on a list that takes years to churn through. Transfers like those afforded Gibson’s sisters are requested and voluntary, and Smith said about 50 new tenants have been placed in Liberty Square in the last month.

Still, the tenants council isn’t dismissive of concerns about displacement. Eric Thompson, a community organizer who runs a computer center in the project, said the tenants council is monitoring the county’s work with the help of Legal Services of Greater Miami, and is ready to take action if the county reneges on promises.

“We can do all that,” he said. “The time is not now.”

Under the county’s timeline, officials expect to bring a recommended developer to the County Commission by the end of the year, and break ground some time toward the end of 2016 — when Gimenez will be up for reelection. His lone opponent, School Board member Raquel Regalado, criticized Gimenez for not being more inclusive when planning the project and said it’s understandable that people are worried.

“This isn't the first time somebody comes into Liberty City saying ‘I'm going to fix things,’” she said. “If people are overreacting it's because this has gone to the foundations of the fears that are percolating there. It's just ripping the scab off the thing.”