Downtown Miami

In a neglected Miami housing tower, residents told to move but don’t know where to go

A leaky air conditioner forces Gladys Portela to mop her tile floor before visitors arrive at her 14th-floor apartment in Miami’s Harry Cain Tower, one more problem in a public housing complex that’s been declared too broken down to fix.

Five years after residents voted down a Miami-Dade proposal to move to a different building so that Cain could be redeveloped, Portela and more than 100 neighbors are being forced to clear out under a health emergency tied to widespread mold contamination and floors laden with asbestos.

“When I moved here it was a perfect place to live,” said Portela, 60, from the center of her $178-a-month efficiency in the building that opened in 1984.

Now the Cuban-born vice president of the building’s tenant council can’t predict where she’ll move next. Miami-Dade’s housing agency notified residents Wednesday that it had to close the county-run Harry Cain Tower over health concerns. The county promised to help residents find subsidized apartment in the private market and offer counseling, cover moving expenses, utility hook-ups and pay for deposits at the new apartments.

Samuel Cordero, a resident of Harry Cain Tower in downtown Miami, uses a wooden stick in his sink to prevent sewage from coming out and flooding the kitchen. SAM NAVARRO Special for the Miami Herald

County housing director Michael Liu said the drastic move was unavoidable once inspectors last month confirmed that long-running problems with the building posed health risks and required lengthy, expensive repairs to be eliminated. One estimate of a full upgrade of the building put the price at $19 million.

“This is not an easy thing. We know that,” Liu said of requiring residents, most of them considered seniors, to leave their homes. “It’s not a healthy place.”

Portela said she moved to Harry Cain in 2001, scoring a unit in a 15-story county tower a few blocks from the downtown waterfront. Biscayne Bay and the AmericanAirlines Arena are visible from her window, and there’s a Metromover stop a block away. “It was a jewel,” she said.

An Aug. 27 inspection report details how far Harry Cain has deteriorated under a Miami-Dade housing system starved for federal dollars and unable to keep up with maintenance.

Rodriguez Architects wrote that most of the 154 units have air-conditioners sending water back into the apartments, leading to “serious problems with mold and mildew” as well as warping the floors and leaving the units damp and humid.

David Kennedy, a resident of Harry Cain Tower in downtown Miami, talks about the sewage and mold problems that he and his neighbors have dealt with for several years, on Friday, September 20, 2019. SAM NAVARRO Special for the Miami Herald

Original gaskets have deteriorated so much that windows and exterior doors are leaking, worsening the mold problem. The report says the community room, lobbies and other common areas “in desperate need” of repairs and the building’s sewer system suffers from “significant” backup from a lack of service.

Samuel Cordero says he’s been dealing with backed-up pipes for years in his Harry Cain unit. In the 60-year-old’s tidy kitchen, a wooden rod juts out from the drain, wedged with a cloth under a cupboard to hold a stopper in place.

“I have to keep it there, or black water will come out,” he said. “In 10 years I’ve been living here, it’s been a problem. They never fixed it.”

The abandonment of Harry Cain comes as Miami-Dade is pursuing a contentious new strategy to rehabilitate an aging public-housing system, where the average building age is 40 years old. The county’s 2020 budget lists $420 million in deferred maintenance needs for the 9,700 units reserved for low-income residents.

A wall is covered with mold in an apartment in Harry Cain Tower in downtown Miami, on Friday, September 20, 2019. SAM NAVARRO Special for the Miami Herald

The county is asking private-sector developers to bid on redeveloping government-run housing complexes, with improvements funded by borrowing against a stream of federal rent subsidies under Washington’s Section 8 program. Washington approved Miami-Dade to launch Rental Assistance Demonstration projects, and Harry Cain was one of the complexes included in the 2018 application as a potential redevelopment target under “RAD.”

Low-income housing advocates have raised concerns about the effort, calling it the “privatization” of public housing. County administrators describe RAD as a welcome example of flexibility from Washington, because it requires developers to retain public housing units while allowing a broader range of options for funding to improve the residences.

Liu said Friday night that the Harry Cain emergency has scrambled the county’s RAD plan, because it can no longer be eligible for the program. Instead, Miami-Dade will have to select a substitute complex to be part of the portfolio eligible for conversion.

The county has been trying for years to rehab Harry Cain. In 2011, Miami-Dade commissioners approved a redevelopment plan with the Related Group, a condo builder and the affordable-housing developer behind the ongoing rebuilding of the Liberty Square housing complex in Liberty City.

According to a 2017 case study by the Wilson Center, Related planned to convert Harry Cain into a mixed-income complex. That’s similar to the Liberty Square strategy of retaining the public housing units while adding apartments available for tenants who can afford higher rents.

Harry Cain Tower in downtown Miami opened in 1984. SAM NAVARRO Special for the Miami Herald

At the time, Miami-Dade offered to move residents to a building that was under construction, allowing Harry Cain tenants to relocate to a new tower in Miami’s Allapattah neighborhood. But residents rejected the offer in a 2014 vote, a decision that ended Related’s deal with Miami-Dade.

Company representatives were not available for interviews Friday, but county housing spokeswoman Annette Molina said Related no longer had rights to the property and that “we have no plans yet” for the future of Harry Cain.

Past redevelopment efforts have residents wary of why they’re being told to leave so quickly in 2019. “They say the building is so bad they have to move everybody here,” said David Kennedy, 79, the association president who led the fight against the 2014 Related deal. “It’s not the first time.”

At Wednesday’s meeting with residents, the agency said they would have a “right” to move into units at the Swerdlow development company’s new Sawyers Landing complex about a mile away at 249 NW 6th St., according to the presentation.

Funded by the Overtown anti-blight tax zone, known as the Community Redevelopment Agency, the project isn’t scheduled to be ready until 2022. That leaves residents reliant on the Section 8 program for their next homes as Miami-Dade begins the process of vacating Harry Cain.

“It’s hard on me to move now,” said Lizzie Mae Hannah, 61, during an interview in the community room, where ceiling tiles sag from water damage. “I don’t know much about Section 8.”

The vouchers cover a portion of a tenant’s monthly rent, and Miami-Dade says it has agreements covering about 6,000 units that should give Harry Cain residents some options. Portela said she’s already run into landlords who don’t want to deal with the paperwork. “When you tell the owner ‘I have Section 8,’ ” Portela said, “they refuse you.”