July 25, 2006
In a town house where stray bullets left pockmarks on the walls, where the doors are locked tight and the windows covered with steel bars, 5-year-old Alex Bruce eyed his blue scooter and asked, "Can I ride?"
Just two years ago, his mother tore the skin off her hands pushing Alex through the door as bullets flew through their Liberty City neighborhood. So on this bright afternoon in April, Andrea Williams took one look at the scooter, parked in the living room, and told her son, "Maybe later."
Danger: Alex Romer holds his sons, Ahmari, 1, and Alex Bruce, 4, while their mother, Andrea Williams, works in the kitchen. She won't let the children play outside because of gunfire in the public housing complex where they live. (Raul Rubiera/Miami Herald Staff)
Williams had hoped to be out of here by now.
Once she was part of the most high-profile building project ever taken on by the Miami-Dade Housing Agency, with a name that suited its mission: HOPE VI.
Armed with a $35,million grant from the U.S. government, the Housing Agency set out to transform one of Miami's most distressed neighborhoods by replacing rundown, barracks-style public housing along Northwest 22nd Avenue with 411 houses offering poor families a shot at homeownership.
Williams and hundreds of others would be relocated while homes were built, then offered a chance to buy them at affordable prices.
But instead of putting up houses, the Housing Agency spent millions of dollars on architects and project managers, staggering overhead costs and payments to a consultant who double-billed the county, an investigation by The Miami Herald found.
Six years later, almost half of the money is spent, and more than 800 families displaced.
They thought they would come home to a reborn community.
But now there is no community.
In six years, just three houses have been built, leaving a dusty and deserted wasteland in the heart of Liberty City, with block after block of boarded-up buildings and mounds of rubble where generations of families once lived.
Worse: Dozens of people who moved from the area no longer can be found.
The Miami Herald traced 250 families and found that more than one-third no longer live at the addresses the Housing Agency considers current. Some are simply gone, with no forwarding addresses, lost by a system that vowed to watch over them.
"It's so disappointing," said Williams, 23, a mother of two who earns $8.25 an hour working nights in a home for the disabled. She was forced to leave the home she grew up in only to move a few miles away to another public housing complex, where earlier this month a 9-year-old Sherdavia Jenkins was shot and killed playing on the front stoop.
Former Home: Andrea Williams stands with her children on the site of their former apartment at Scott Homes public housing, which was torn down. (Raul Rubiera/Miami Herald Staff)
"I really thought I'd be able to get a house by now," Williams said. "Nobody in my family has ever had that before."
While Williams waited for construction to start, the Housing Agency botched its bid for state affordable housing money and lost out on $2,million. It overpaid landlords who took in displaced families. In other cases, it failed to provide rent subsidies to newly relocated residents, leaving them at risk of eviction.
While cutting checks, the federal government produced just two monitoring reports in six years, even after the Housing Agency missed development deadlines and spent so much money early on that federal officials worried about the "apparent front loading" of administrative costs.
In January, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development finally warned the Housing Agency that the $35,million grant was "at risk."
"Progress," wrote HUD's Miami office chief, "cannot continue at this snail's pace."
Elizabeth Ogden, who manages the project for the Housing Agency, acknowledges delays but said the program is on track.
"We've made tremendous strides, and we're certainly moving forward," she said.
But problems persist.
Though the Housing Agency has spent more than $22 million so far in both federal and local dollars, it did not offer developers construction money to actually build the houses promised in the first phase of the project.
One developer who stepped forward later backed out, causing more delays. The Housing Agency eventually asked Miami Habitat for Humanity to build 52 homes. The three houses built so far were delivered free by Habitat.
But Habitat, hoping to have the homes built by January 2008, has no idea where the construction money will come from.
"I hate to use the word desperate," said Habitat executive director Anne Manning.
RIOTS SCARRED CRIME-RIDDEN AREA
Williams grew up among crack dealers and alleyway gamblers, teenagers who stole cars and stripped them down at night in the dimly lit streets of Scott Homes, Florida's largest public housing development.
Police chased suspects through the breezeways. Families battled rats and roaches in rundown apartments built in 1954.
Rioting in 1980, triggered after the acquittal of white police officers in the beating and killing of an unarmed black motorist, left a scarred community.
But it was also a community with roots and history, a place where Dorothy Perry opened her home to local kids and taught them to sing anti-drug rap songs, where longtime resident Leon Fulton planted a lush rose garden and thicket of palms to spruce up the neighborhood.
In this torn, troubled place, with a poverty rate four times greater than the Miami region as a whole, the Housing Agency vowed an unprecedented revitalization.
The construction of new homes, which would replace Scott Homes and the nearby 96-unit Carver Homes, was supposed to start no later than 2002 and end by April 2005. Promised in countless community meetings and home-buyer workshops were 251 affordable homes and 160 new public housing units.
But the biggest mistake, critics say, came first: The Housing Agency decided to handle the project in-house.
Hundreds of project files, e-mails, contracts, budgets, construction correspondence and senior staff meeting notes reviewed by The Miami Herald expose the agency's missteps.
In 2001, the agency hired a relocation company for $2 million. But for four months, records show, the company failed to offer counseling and housing referrals to the hundreds of families about to be displaced from their homes.
An even bigger problem bubbled up once the referral work began. In a county already struggling with a widespread affordable housing shortage, there simply weren't enough places for families to go.
The Housing Agency made no move before launching HOPE VI to open up housing for the 800-plus families who were about to be displaced.
Some families were so worried about where they'd end up that they refused to leave the neighborhood, living for months in empty buildings where vandals stole the pipes and fixtures.
Still Waiting: Mary Reese, who was forced from her home after 20 years, was relocated but still awaits the housing she was promised. (Raul Rubiera/Miami Herald Staff)
Many knew of residents who already had bounced from place to place after leaving Scott Homes, including 22-year-old Lakia Davis, who moved three times, the last from an apartment where sewage seeped into the shower every time her neighbor flushed the toilet.
The remaining residents of Scott Homes also heard the Housing Agency wasn't making required rental payments on time, putting newly relocated families at risk of eviction. The problem was documented by HUD in a 2003 monitoring report.
"Everyone knew that once you moved, the Housing Agency forgot about you," said Mary Reese, who lived in the complexes for 20 years and was among the last to leave.
In March 2001, when county commissioners questioned the pace of the project, then-County Manager Steve Shiver publicly assured them that HOPE VI was "very much under way."
But an in-house Housing Agency report just five months later told a different story.
"At present," the report said, "there has been little or no progress made in the relocation of families."
AGENCY, MANAGER DIFFER ON APPROACH
In 2002 2001, the Housing Agency hired the Atlanta-based H.J. Russell for $2.5,million, adding another layer of management to the ailing project.
The agency at the time already had assigned 14 people to HOPE VI, racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in overhead. Now, H.J. Russell would provide "overall program management."
H.J. Russell officials said they thought they would come in and take over the program, much like they've done in other cities with identical projects. The company would oversee a single team of contractors, architects and engineers.
But the Housing Agency couldn't decide how to tackle the job, said Paul Perdue, H.J. Russell's Miami program executive. Plans shifted constantly. H.J. Russell had little to say about who was hired and how the work would be done, he said.
Eventually, the Housing Agency decided to break the project into phases, raising costs and delaying construction. Instead of leveling all the buildings at once, for example, some would go first and others later.
"Here again, don't ask me why. We weren't involved in this decision," Perdue said.
Instead, H.J. Russell has been paid largely for a side project: the painting and landscaping of existing homes in Liberty City, which raised the cost of the program.
The Housing Agency has touted the beautification program as a success, with more than 500 homes fixed up. But one-fifth of the $2.5,million spent went to three consultants, including H.J. Russell.
One consultant, the local Black Business Association, double-billed the Housing Agency for months, The Miami Herald found. So did H.J. Russell, a problem that company officials say they caught and later fixed.
The Housing Agency also had problems with its architect, Neil Hall, hired for $2.6,million to design the new community.
Hall had studied similar HOPE VI projects nationwide. After meeting with community members in Liberty City, he proposed building a neighborhood that not only would include homes, but also shops, parks, pools, clubhouses, libraries and theaters amenities that sustain a community.
The Housing Agency resisted, according to Hall and others involved in the project.
"They asked me to choose between being an architect and being an advocate, and I couldn't separate the two," Hall said. "This was something our community desperately needed."
Perdue said the Housing Agency balked because there wasn't enough money, and officials figured extra features could be added later.
"I don't do what I want to do. I do what the plan says to do and what I'm instructed to do by the Housing Agency," Perdue recently told The Miami Herald. "I don't know if we got that same level of cooperation by the architect."
In 2004, the Housing Agency terminated its contract with Hall.
"That was a delay," said Perdue. "We had to start again."
Adding to the tension was a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of Scott/Carver residents, alleging the project discriminated against black families by forcing them to move with little hope of being able to afford one of the proposed new houses.
In a 2002 letter to HUD requesting more time to start construction, then-Housing Agency Director Rene Rodriguez largely blamed delays on the lawsuit, saying, "Opponents have gone along way to try to block the project."
The lawyers who filed the suit don't buy it. They tried to get an injunction to stop the Housing Agency from tearing down buildings, but were denied in 2002 and again on appeal in 2003.
The demolition of buildings didn't start until 2004 and is still incomplete.
Rodriguez could not be reached for comment, nor did he respond to a certified letter sent to his home requesting an interview.
MORE FUNDS SOUGHT
ALMOST $22,M LATER, STILL NO NEW HOMES
As delays mounted, the Housing Agency requested more money from HUD, largely to cover shortfalls in its administration budget.
Celebration: Seven years ago, Miami-Dade officials accepted $35 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for affordable housing. (Marice Cohn Band/Miami Herald File, 1999)
To date, almost $15,million from the federal grant has been spent on the project, plus $7,million in local funds . money set aside to build homes for the poor.
Ogden, who is running the program at the Housing Agency, said money paid for architects, engineers, environmental surveys, water and sewer hookups, and demolition.
"There is so much that goes into seeing something tangible," he said.
But records show much of the money went to overhead, overtime, office supplies, fringe benefits and consultants, so much so that HUD raised concerns about the level of spending in correspondence to the Housing Agency. Just this year, county commissioners gave the Housing Agency another $830,000 in surtax funds to pay H.J. Russell for additional services and two more years of program management.
Now, six years into a project that's years from completion, HUD officials are growing restless.
"The time has long ago passed when we could simply blame the delays on the ongoing legislation. The clock has continued to tick and the federal funds provided through HUD [have] continued to flow to your agency without tangible results," HUD Miami chief Karen Cato-Turner wrote to the Housing Agency in January.
Today along bustling 22nd Avenue, dozens of faded yellow buildings still stand amid overgrown grass and downed tree branches, on streets filled with trash, in a neighborhood that has been destroyed.
There's only one thing now that reminds Andrea Williams of home: a sign shaded for years by an old tree in the middle the road, a few blocks from where she grew up. It says: Welcome to the James E. Scott Housing Community.
Miami Herald researcher Monika Leal and database editor Tim Henderson contributed to this report.