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Miami Herald - 6/11/02
HUD puts out order for freeze on City of Miami Land Acquisition
By Oscar Corral
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has ordered the city of Miami
to freeze $10 million in federal funding, destined for land acquisition and infrastructure
projects, because the city has failed to comply with environmental regulations.
The agency also scolded city officials for failing to keep environmental records,
saying they ``violated compliance with numerous federal laws.''
The announcement was made in a May 23 letter sent to City Manager Carlos Gimenez.
HUD based its assessments on an April inspection of the city's Community Development
Department by environmental specialist Linda Poythress. She decided that Community
Development had ignored HUD's warnings from last year that they were not in compliance
with environmental requirements.
''Despite the technical assistance provided in the past, the review of the environmental
records indicates a number of violations in the city's compliance,'' the HUD letter
HUD's order is the latest in a series of embarrassments for the city's Community
Development department, which is in charge of distributing federal grant money to
programs designed to help the city's poor.
Gimenez said he knew about the order, and had directed his staff in Community Development
to address the problem.
''I'm not happy about it,'' Gimenez said. ``I want to know why we did not comply
with HUD's past requests.''
Gwendolyn Warren, who was director of Community Development until April and is now
the director of the Model City Homeownership Trust, could not be reached for comment.
Gimenez said Warren never told him about past HUD warnings despite a letter she
received in December warning her to comply with HUD regulations immediately.
The Model City Homeownership Trust is one of the two agencies that has temporarily
lost funding because of the environmental missteps, according to the letter. Model
City has lost access to $6.6 million that had been slated to acquire property to
build affordable homes because they had not been conducting environmental studies
required by HUD, the letter said. The city's Community Redevelopment Agency has
lost access to about $3.4 million for infrastructure improvements, city officials
said. Environmental reviews are conducted by the city's planning department, and
are done so the city can gauge the impact demolition and construction will have
on the surrounding area, said Barbara Gomez-Rodriguez, assistant director of Community
''We are not going to be acquiring any more properties until we do the environmental
studies,'' she said. ``I don't think anybody knowingly did anything in violation
of HUD codes.''
She said the city is now scrambling to complete the necessary environmental reviews
so it can free up funding for property sales and projects that have been put on
hold. City records show more than 40 closings on property sales in the Liberty City
area are on hold.
The freezing of funds has angered some of the property owners who had signed contracts
to sell land to the city. The closing date on properties slated to be sold has been
pushed back indefinitely until the situation is resolved.
''It's frustrating,'' said Malcolm Wiseheart, a lawyer representing several property
owners. ``It could have been put together months ago and it wasn't.''
Wiseheart said some of his clients signed contracts to sell the city their property
seven months ago and they still had not closed.
''The value of the property has gone up in the meantime,'' Wiseheart said.
HUD said the city partially ignored two prior notices of violation following inspection
visits in January and December of 2001.
''These visits were followed by letters outlining the city's failure to comply with
the environmental regulations,'' the letter said.
HUD also found that the city:
* - Has not been able to gauge the impact of its projects on neighborhood environments
because of poor organization;
* - Failed to cite in writing that projects were exempt from environmental reviews
before spending HUD funds, and
* - Began demolition and construction in certain projects before completing the
The agency also cited three major homeownership projects in which construction began
before environmental reviews were completed, including Latin Quarter, Miami River
Park apartments and Rayos Del Sol Condominiums. But Gomez-Rodriguez said HUD had
approved funding for those projects and they will not be affected.
''We're correcting the deficiencies,'' Gomez-Rodriguez said. ``We're in the process
of working it out.''