Sept. 2, 2012
For 28 years, Yvette Norton lived at the James E. Scott homes, a dingy and often dangerous Liberty City public housing project. But it was home and it was her community, a place of deep roots and lifelong bonds shared by hundreds of families.
When Miami-Dade’s housing agency decided to tear it down along with the smaller, adjacent Carver homes, scattering 1,150 residents across the county, Norton and many of her neighbors were pained to go. There was one balm, though: The county pledged to replace the housing project with a real neighborhood of attractive homes, apartments, trees and amenities, and said there would be a place for those who wanted to return.
What they could not know then is that it would take more than 10 years, complicated legal and public relations battles, and one of the biggest scandals to hit the housing agency for the county to do what it promised.
Norton has just moved into a sparkling two-bedroom terrace apartment with her 18-year-old granddaughter. It’s in the new NorthPark at Scott Carver, a community of 354 mixed-income apartments and town homes arranged in tree-lined clusters along new suburban-style blocks, where rows of barracks-like public housing once stood. Two sections are done, and a third will open by November.
When complete, the $84 million development, which straddles Northwest 22nd Avenue from 75th Street south to the Florida East Coast rail tracks, will be dotted with playgrounds, a community center with a swimming pool, a gym and a computer lounge.
It’s no longer a housing project, but a publicly subsidized, privately built and managed development with scaled rents depending on income. They range from 70 apartments with market rents starting at $651, to 107 homes set aside for low- and moderate-income income families. The other 177 are public housing apartments, with rents going all the way down to zero for the poorest residents.
But there is nothing to tell one kind of unit from the others.
“I feel good about having my new home,’’ said Norton, who moved three times during her exile, first to a Section 8 home and then to another housing project before her return. “I love it. They didn’t just throw something up. I will give them that much.’’
The experience still clearly smarts, though. It turned Norton and several of her old neighbors into community activists under the aegis of the Miami Workers Center, which helped them organize to fight for the county commitment to replace all 850 demolished units, locate hundreds of original Scott Carver tenants after the county lost track of them, and then win their right to first dibs on the new homes.
“We were scattered all over, some people as far as Georgia,’’ Norton recalled. “Some people were homeless and living in their cars. But the county had no answers for us.’’
The group even managed to save one original Scott homes building, which the county historic preservation board declared a protected landmark. It will be turned into a museum.
“If we hadn’t fought, we wouldn’t have what we got now,’’ said Norton’s longtime friend and fellow combatant Yvonne Stratford, a former Carver resident who finished raising her children after being moved to another rundown project, Annie M. Coleman Gardens, and is now on the waiting list for a one-bedroom apartment in the new development.
The county promises are not yet fully fleshed out, however. One Scott Homes tract remains vacant because of ground contamination problems that the agency says will take millions of dollars to clean up. The county housing agency says it is building about 500 additional subsidized units in partnership with private developers in the vicinity to make up the balance.
“We are committed to making sure that area does not lose affordable housing units,’’ said county housing director Gregg Fortner.
The completion of the new development comes four years after the county, under intense public pressure, hurriedly had Habitat for Humanity construct 52 detached houses on one of the old public housing tracts; 41 of the homes were purchased by former Scott Carver tenants who helped build them under Habitat’s famous “sweat-equity’’ formula.
But that was preceded by years of protests and lawsuits, and a scandal over housing officials’ bungling and waste.
Miami-Dade’s housing agency, long castigated for poor maintenance and management of its properties, first announced its intention to replace the deteriorating Scott and Carver homes in 1999, when it received a $35 million grant from the Clinton administration’s Hope VI initiative. The program aimed to replace obsolete housing projects, criticized for concentrating the poorest of the poor in hopeless, crime-ridden communities, with mixed-income neighborhoods better integrated into their surroundings.
The county issued 1,100 Section 8 vouchers — portable subsidies that can be used in qualified private housing as well as affordable housing projects — to Scott Carver residents, allowing them wide latitude in choosing where to live.
Though tenants and their legal representatives say many were left to fend for themselves by housing officials and lost their vouchers and housing, Fortner says the great majority retained their subsidies. Some elected to move to other public housing projects.
Six years later, after the projects had been demolished, a Pulitzer-winning investigation by The Miami Herald, called “House of Lies,” revealed the agency had spent half the Hope VI grant but built just three homes. The series documented millions of dollars in fees paid to architects and project managers, staggering overhead costs, and payments to a consultant who double-billed the county. The agency, meanwhile, could not account for the whereabouts of hundreds of former Scott Carver residents.
The scandal, coupled with other fiscal and operational problems, led to a temporary takeover of the agency by the federal government. New leadership has since been installed.
Former tenants, organized as Low-Income Families Fighting Together, meanwhile staged protests, sued the county for discrimination and launched a campaign to locate scores of former residents. The group eventually lost the court battle, but won a commitment from the county commission to replace the lost housing and tender offers for new homes to former Scott Carver tenants first.
The county reached a deal in 2008 with St. Louis developer McCormack Baron Salazar, which packaged together what remained of the original Hope VI grant with tax credits, private financing and new federal grants, including stimulus money to build in energy-saving and other environmentally friendly features. The developer, which has extensive experience developing and running Hope IV projects, owns the buildings and improvements and will maintain and manage them.
Though the county housing agency has vastly improved its management capabilities since the scandal, Fortner said, it lacks the development expertise that McCormack Baron has.
“We do a lot better at managing public housing than we did in the 1980s and the 1990s. There is a lot more professionalism now than when these neighborhoods became blighted,’’ he said, but added: “One of the big problems in the past is the county tried to act as a developer, and we’re just not that good at that.’’
Fortner said his agency has been sending letters to former Scott Carver residents, offering them a chance to apply for the new housing.
It’s still not known how many of the original tenants will wind up moving back. Several hundred either could not be found, have died, or are settled elsewhere — most still with Section 8 certificates — and are no longer interested in coming back, he said.
Of the 700 people on the county’s list, 485 have expressed interest in returning, but only 198 are “in good standing’’ — meaning they have not violated any agency rules and are qualified to apply for new housing, Fortner said. Of those, 61 have moved back, 14 others have been approved, and 78 have submitted applications, he said.
Fortner also said the county is well on its way to replacing the 850 demolished units. In addition to the new homes on the Scott Carver site, the agency has partnered with private developers to complete about 370 new affordable units in the area, he said. An additional 158 units are scheduled to open next year, and 100 in 2016, he said.
Norton, the longtime resident, and the Miami Workers Center organizer, Hashim Yeomans-Benford, say they have not seen those plans and contend the county remains well short of its promises of full replacement and return for all those wanting to come back.
“Our expectation remains: What is the plan for one-to-one replacement? The community is progressing, and we want to make sure the people in the community get to participate in that progress,’’ Yeomans-Benford said.
Added Norton: “It took 10 years so far, and it may take 10 more.’’
But Charles Elsesser, a Florida Legal Services attorney who represented the former tenants, said he believes the county is now serious about fulfilling its promise to provide them the right to return, and says the activist residents can take some of the credit for the high quality of the new housing.
“I think it turned out infinitely better than it otherwise would have,’’ Elsesser said. “The housing is beautiful. It is really, really nice. That’s a tribute to all the work everybody put into it. A lot of them will get a chance to live in really nice housing. It just need not have taken 13 years.’’