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May. 25, 2003 - Miami Herald

Sisters cling to dream of decent, safe home

By Andrea Robinson

Between them, Gladys Leonard and Mary Holloway have 142 years of living, nearly half of those as next-door neighbors at James E. Scott Homes in Liberty City. Together they raised children and grandchildren in tiny two-story abodes. They outlasted riots and floods, sweltering summers and bad employers.

As they grew older and reached retirement, the sisters, both widows, leaned on each other in different ways. Gladys -- at 70, the younger one -- offers kind words or soothing spirituals in rich alto tones to lift Mary's spirits. Other times, Mary, 72, helps Gladys get to her medical and hair appointments. Neither woman drives, so they hitch rides with relatives or call for a cab.

Through everything, one thing has stayed the same. They've never lived more than a block apart.

''All our life, we've been together,'' Leonard said.

But radical changes are coming the sisters' way, threatening to split them apart. Their apartments are in a zone slated for demolition as early as July, as the county proceeds with a long-awaited, controversial project called HOPE VI. The program will bring single-family homes and town houses to the neighborhood and provide a variety of housing options to displaced tenants.

Most of the about 300 families who once lived in Scott Sector I vacated the timeworn, barracks-style buildings more than a year ago. Most went to other public housing units or rented houses and apartments paid for by government vouchers. A few have bought homes.

But Leonard and Holloway and three other families refuse to move, because they believe the county is dictating where they have to go.

For 21 months, the sisters have unsuccessfully looked for two affordable rental homes near their church, doctors and families -- the people and places they know. Their neighborhoods of choice are El Portal or West Little River.

Their time is almost up.

This month, Miami-Dade County Housing officials issued ''mandatory relocation notices'' that warn the sisters and three other families must move to other county-owned public housing properties by mid-June.

If not, the county could take them to court to force them out.


''Either they will have to leave voluntarily or involuntarily, but they will have to leave,'' said Terrence Smith, an assistant county attorney.

Florida Legal Services is filing an appeal to the housing agency to give the sisters more time to continue looking for a new place.

''They have a right to that,'' said Chuck Elsesser, a Legal Services attorney.

This is not the first time the sisters have faced forced relocation at the demand of the government. They came to Scott Homes in 1966 because they were forced out of their Overtown homes to make way for Interstate 95, which plowed through their neighborhood. Neither woman knew anything about public housing.

''This is what was available,'' Leonard reminisced while sitting in a well-used lounger. ``We were just looking for a place to go.''

Her living room is filled with cherished items and minutiae collected over her 37 years at Scott -- photo albums, trophies won by grandchildren, a girl's bike. Bibles are everywhere.


In front of her is an open door that offers a desolate view to shuttered apartments across the way. Not long ago, the grassy courtyard was teeming with children and young mothers. Now there is empty silence.

The sisters came to Miami from their small hometown of of Uvalda, Ga., in 1954, looking for a better life. Mary left first. Gladys followed six months later.

They settled in Overtown, where the sisters took day jobs as housekeepers for white families.

Even then, they lived in the same apartment building, two doors apart.

The sisters are close, no doubt, but still value their privacy.

Leonard and Holloway said they don't necessarily mind moving, as long as they can live near each other in neighborhoods where they can feel safe.

''The places they referred us to, we don't like. The places we picked out, they won't give us enough money'' to pay the rent, Holloway said.

Jerry Allen, Leonard's daughter and full-time caregiver, said the county has hurt their attempts to find decent rental homes -- one benefit touted in HOPE VI -- by refusing to raise the value of the sisters' vouchers, which vary in amount based on family size and the location of a qualifying home.


One option, another public housing development, is unacceptable, said Allen, who lives with her mother.

''We want a place with less crime, that is close to their church and their doctor,'' she said.

Voucher amounts are determined by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Affairs, said Rick Herrera, HOPE VI project manager, adding that county officials have been generous in giving tenants time to find other accommodations.

Public housing, he said, would be only temporary, and the sisters could continue their search.

''We understand some situations are more difficult than others,'' Herrera said. ``We will work with them as much as we can.''

In the meantime, several buildings near where the sisters and the other three remaining tenants are living have been condemned, making the area less safe.

''Where they are now is not decent or safe,'' he said. ``We're trying to give them safe housing that will be decent.''


Allen, however, opposes the idea of a temporary relocation because it would be too taxing physically and psychologically for the sisters.

She has found a duplex, but it needs renovations and won't be available until late June at the earliest -- after the 30-day relocation notice expires. Still, the landlord is not obligated to hold the apartment if another tenant comes along willing to pay more.

The county owns and operates more than 11,000 public housing units and controls another 16,000 rental vouchers that can be used if landlords accept them.

But given Miami-Dade's tight housing market, the sisters may have a tough time satisfying their desires.

''In this market, they're asking a lot,'' said Gail Williams, director of Housing Opportunities for Excellence, a private relocation service. ``It's not like we don't have a demand. They probably will have to make some concessions.''

As the time to demolition draws near, the sisters' angst grows, Allen said. Sleepless nights have taken a toll on Leonard, and Holloway grapples with depression.

''I've been packed since November,'' Holloway said. ``The only thing I'd be interested in right now is someone telling me I have a place to stay.''