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2/19/02 - Miami Herald

Demolition of housing leaves many tenants in the lurch

By Andrea Robinson

Moving day at soon-to-be-demolished Scott Homes came several months ago, but Velma Bailey still has no place to go.

That's not surprising in Miami, where the home rental vacancy rate is a scant 3 percent. The market is especially tight for people like Bailey, whose household includes 10 children -- six are hers, and four are her sister's.

Both the Scott and nearby Carver housing projects, located between Northwest 19th and 22nd avenues at 68th Street, are slated to be torn down and resurrected as mixed-income communities.

Last fall, a first group of tenants was given the option of moving into another public housing unit or accepting Section 8 vouchers to pay for rental homes and apartments in the private marketplace. The vouchers vary in value, based on family size and the location of a qualifying home.

Octavia Anderson, president of the Scott Tenant Association, said dozens of tenants have encountered problems. Some have been tentatively approved for homes only to find their new residences rented to others before they could move. Others have been flat-out rejected by landlords who refuse to accept vouchers. Then there are others like Bailey, who can't find homes large enough for a big family.

''It's very hard. I went out as soon as I got my voucher because [HUD] only gives you so much time,'' Bailey said. ``I need five or six bedrooms, and the highest they go is one to four bedrooms.''

A federal lawsuit filed last September on behalf of Bailey and other tenants accuses the Miami-Dade Housing Agency and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development of attempting to unfairly displace residents at Scott and Carver. Trial is set for November.

The plaintiffs want the program halted and replaced with one that would provide more homes for current tenants. They also want a judge to issue an injunction halting demolition and relocation.

The suit alleges the rental vouchers are ''useless'' for large families because few homes with four or more bedrooms exist in Miami-Dade's rental market.

The suit is the most serious challenge to the county's efforts to redevelop one of its most blighted sections. Demolition at one section of Scott was supposed to start last year, but those plans were put on hold.

Officials at Miami-Dade Housing Authority declined to speak about the relocation, citing pending litigation. But one official said tenants have received updated lists of landlords and local apartment guides. Under the relocation plan, residents would vacate the 800-plus units at Scott and Carver in stages.

''It's their responsibility to find the apartment or town home they're looking for. That's the freedom of choice,'' said spokeswoman Sherra McLeod.

JoNel Newman, a local attorney working with the tenants, said between 40 to 70 families out of more than 200 of the first group have left Scott. She said the majority of those have moved into other public housing units.

Susan Popkin, an analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute, said the situation at Scott has been played out in cities like Chicago, New York and Washington.

''If you have a tight rental market, then you will have a problem,'' said Popkin, who is conducting a study of vouchers issued to Chicago's public housing tenants.

``Landlords in good neighborhoods have little incentive to take Section 8 vouchers because they can attract quality tenants who can pay the rents they're seeking.''

Popkin also pointed out that landlords historically have been reluctant to participate in voucher programs because of bureaucratic delays in getting their rent payments on time or stringent federal participation guidelines.

A specialist with the company that is monitoring Miami-Dade's public housing desegregation efforts as part of a 1998 lawsuit settlement said she's experienced difficulty finding homes for large families. But, she said, there are other hurdles, particularly with older residents.

''They're not comfortable moving someplace where they're not close to their doctor or their children,'' said Gail Williams of Housing Opportunities Project for Excellence. ``They don't want to move to South Dade.''

Williams said that some tenants resist moving into attached buildings such as apartment complexes because of the resemblance to public housing.

Bailey, the tenant who's been hunting since October, remains at Scott in two adjacent apartments that have been combined. She estimates she has spent $400 on gasoline. Under HUD rules, she must find a house with at least five bedrooms to accommodate her family.

She attempted to rent a six-bedroom home in Country Walk, but never heard back from the landlord. Now someone else is in the house.

``My kids see children get killed every day. I don't have to be close to Liberty City. I've been ready to move.''