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2/6/03 - Miami Herald

Neighbors at odds on redevelopment
By Andrea Robinson

Straddling Northwest 22nd Avenue, the aging, barracks-style buildings in the James E. Scott Homes stand as symbols of dramatic change in one of the poorest inner-city neighborhoods in Miami-Dade County.

On the west side, the side streets are teeming with children, snow-cone sellers and mothers sitting in small clusters. On the east side, the grounds are virtually deserted. Concrete blocks replace window panes, and apartment doors are welded shut to keep out vagrants.

The landscape represents a sign of progress in an ambitious attempt to help people living in Scott, the largest public housing complex in the county. The Miami-Dade Housing Agency is trying to move hundreds of families and knock down the 49-year-old project to make way for nearly 400 single-family and town homes.

Some former tenants such as Felicia Coleman say that's a good thing.

''This place needs an overhaul,'' she said. ``It's high crime, and there's nothing positive going on.''

But the $105 million project, known as HOPE VI, has been blasted by many others as a plot to displace black families.

So housing agency officials recently launched a $100,000 multimedia campaign, using former Scott tenants to tout the program's successes. Their aim is to offer reassurance that the redevelopment will bring badly needed jobs and better living conditions to that part of Liberty City.

The agency also hopes the ads will counter negative attitudes shaped by more than two years of protests and legal wrangling. They tout the housing choices, job training and counseling that come with the program.

The people in the ads are among those who have moved into new homes, gotten jobs or both from the Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE VI) program.

Since late 2001, more than 330 families have moved from Scott and nearby Carver Homes, situated just north of the Miami city limits. An additional 425 families remain, and the county expects to have everyone out by February 2004.

Many who left now live in other public housing units or rented houses and apartments paid for by government vouchers. A few have used the program to purchase homes.

Inez Fulton bought a three-bedroom home a few blocks from Scott-Carver last August. She relished the opportunity to own a place, free from the restrictions and rules of project life.

''If HOPE VI wasn't for us, I wouldn't be where I am now,'' Fulton said.

Fulton is one of four ex-tenants showcased in the ads, which appear in The Herald and The Miami Times. There are also ads on three black-oriented radio stations -- WEDR, WHQT and WMBM -- that don't use former Scott residents.

Coleman, who is featured in another newspaper ad, drove a vanload of tenants to see the North Miami home she is renting with a government voucher.

'I told them, `If I can do it, you can, too,' '' she said.

The controversy over the redevelopment project began in 1999, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the local housing agency a $35 million grant to raze and rebuild the site.

Housing officials say the old units are falling apart and would be too expensive to renovate. They also want to reduce the density on the 53-acre site and give it more of a suburban feel.

Opposition has been led by a small but vocal group of tenants and neighborhood activists who are suspicious of the county's motives. They allege that the redevelopment is a ruse for moving out poor blacks in favor of middle-class homeowners.

Over the last three years, the plan has sparked numerous protests, sometimes pitting neighbor against neighbor. Police have had to intervene in confrontations.

News of the ad campaign has also struck a discordant note with some residents, such as Jerry Allen. She says the ads are misleading.

For the last 18 months, she has searched for Section 8 rental housing for her 70-year-old mother and 72-year-old aunt. The women want to live in El Portal or Little River, close to their family, doctors and church.

Allen said program managers have rejected each place they found as too expensive.

She said the properties list from the county has homes in ''undesirable'' areas where neither woman feels safe.

''[Housing officials] want to dictate to us where we can move,'' Allen said. ``I have these ladies out almost every other day looking for places. When we find a decent place, they tell us we can't have it.''

Housing authority spokeswoman Sherra McLeod said the campaign gives the agency a chance to show an aspect of the program that was lost in the protests.

''People need to know the residents are being given opportunities and choices,'' she said. ``That's what HOPE VI is all about.''

She said tenants like Allen's relatives who are wedded to certain neighborhoods could have fewer choices.

''If there's nothing available in those neighborhoods, they may want to live elsewhere,'' she said. ``We can't force a landlord to lower his request.''

Other critics question the timing of the ads.

Sushma Sheth, policy director of the Miami Workers Center, a community activist group in Liberty City, said the campaign is late in coming.

''It's interesting they are doing public education about this program three years after the application was submitted,'' she said. ``It would have been good to have this back then so people could be much more informed.''

Responded McLeod: ``This is our first HOPE VI project. There's a learning curve for the agency. [The campaign] should have been done before, but we're doing it now.''

Sheth said Wednesday that a new coalition of diverse community and civil rights groups is forming to denounce HOPE VI as ''an act of urban removal.'' She said coalition leaders will hold a press conference at 1:30 p.m. today to talk more about their plans.

A lawsuit by three tenants challenging HOPE VI is before an appeals court. A local judge denied their request to halt demolitions.