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6/2/01 - Miami Herald
Housing agency under scrutiny over vacancies
By Andrea Robinson
Miami-Dade County public housing officials, under fire for having hundreds of vacant
units and thousands of poor people in need of a place to live, say a landmark desegregation
settlement reached four years ago has caused the massive backlog.
The County Commission has demanded a full accounting from the Miami-Dade Housing
Agency after activists revealed that more than 1,300 public housing units stand
empty while nearly 64,000 residents sit on a waiting list.
On Tuesday, agency Director Rene Rodriguez is expected to appear before the commission
and present a plan to expedite getting more people into vacant units that are habitable.
However, neither Rodriguez nor other housing officials would answer Herald questions
about the vacancies or the 1998 consent decree the county signed to settle a class-action
lawsuit alleging housing discrimination. They referred questions to the county attorney's
Advocates for public housing tenants say the agency's explanation linking the vacancies
to the settlement is outrageous.
The decree ''was to address the problem of segregation,'' said Tony Romano, a coordinator
at the Miami Workers Center. ``In no way does the settlement mandate or encourage
vacancies, which for us creates homelessness and leaves families who are in desperate
situations without homes.''
The federal suit was filed in 1987 by five community activists, including Anne Marie
Adker, known as ''the unofficial mayor of Overtown.'' She and four other women charged
that the county tended to put blacks in public housing projects but gave preference
to Hispanics and others for the more coveted Section 8 vouchers.
The federally subsidized rental vouchers allow low-income residents to live in privately
owned houses and apartments rather than in projects.
The county settled the case in 1998, four years after Adker died of breast cancer.
In a complex 66-page document, the county agreed to give blacks who qualify for
subsidized housing preference for receiving vouchers. It also ordered the county
to increase its offers of public housing -- largely inhabited by blacks -- to nonblacks
and established guidelines on how to do it.
That's where the backlog problem began, housing officials say. They insist the second
stipulation ``complicates MDHA's ability to fill its public housing vacancies.''
The agency's interpretation of when a unit can be offered to a prospective tenant
appears to differ slightly from the wording in the decree.
In a May 7 memo to county commissioners, housing officials explained that ''following
the first 15 days after a unit becomes ready for occupancy, MDHA must make exclusive
offers'' to five applicants on the housing waiting list ''whose race does not predominate''
at the particular public housing development.
The decree stipulates that ``the county shall make only desegregative offers for
the first 15 days after the unit is ready for occupancy.''
Both the agency and the settlement agree that if none of the five applicants want
the unit, the next person on the list -- regardless of race -- is supposed to be
The process of identifying possible applicants and sorting through the offers caused
delays in filling vacancies, said Terrence Smith, an assistant county attorney representing
In addition, housing officials say that of 1,350 vacant units, only 609 are ready
for occupancy. About 100 are unavailable because of a pending relocation of tenants
from James E. Scott Homes in Liberty City. The other 641 units need to be repaired,
although no time frame for completion was given.
The Washington, D.C.-based attorneys who negotiated the settlement scoffed at the
notion that the consent decree had unintended consequences. They said the housing
agency was using it as a scapegoat.
''Adker is not the root of these vacancies,'' said Julie Nepvue, an attorney with
the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. ``Nothing in the consent decree
would cause these vacancies.''
Nepvue said that, if anything, the decree should have picked up the pace of filling
vacancies because it gives a time frame for making offers to nonblack clients.
Smith contended that the agency is complying with steps outlined in the settlement.
He said the escalation in vacancies occurred when the Adker beneficiaries got their
Section 8 vouchers and moved out of public housing. That started happening in 1999.
About the same time, the county was able to fill few vacancies because the waiting
list -- which stopped accepting new applications in the mid-1990s -- was depleted.
The county then had to wait for approval from the federal Department of Housing
and Urban Development to reopen the list.
''You can't make offers if there's no waiting list,'' Smith said.
The list was reopened in March 2001, and 63,896 people applied.
Smith said the agency got further behind as staffers had to manually input all the
names into the agency's records system. He did not say how long that took.
Frank Alexander, a professor at Emory Law School in Atlanta and a national expert
in affordable housing, said consent decrees sometimes have unintended consequences.
CAN BE MODIFIED
''But usually either party can have it modified in order to eliminate the unintended
consequence,'' he said. ``In long-term consent decrees, parties go back to modify.
It's quite common if there are unintended consequences not related to the original
While the agreement cited the steps that needed to be taken, it didn't plainly spell
out how those steps should be done, said Gail Williams, director at Housing Opportunities
Project for Excellence. HOPE is the agency selected to assist the county in helping
those who benefit under the decree to locate housing.
''The fact this decree has not gone back to court, and we have a monthly system
of talking to each other'' is a positive sign, Williams said.
The legal squabbles don't matter much to people such as Ramona Javier, a waiting
list client who was counseled by HOPE.
Javier, a mother of five, desperately wants suitable housing. She's so cramped for
space that she stores the family's clothing outdoors.
''Everybody I know has been able to move, but not me,'' Javier said. 'I have five
children and nowhere to live. I'm living with my mother, but we sleep on the floor
and everything gets wet when it rains. All my clothes and the kids' clothes are
stored outside. They're getting ruined.''