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10/5/03 - Miami Herald

Mixed-income plan tests an urban vision- The Scott and Carver public housing units will come down in a major federal overhaul of housing for the poor.

By Andrea Robinson

Beverly Edwards gushes with excitement when she envisions the new houses and shops that will replace the James E. Scott Homes, Miami's largest public housing development. It means having a place she can call her own -- and a big yard -- for her and her 12-year-old daughter, Patrice.

''This is long overdue, and it's definitely needed,'' Edwards said, taking a break from packing. Nearby are stacks of books collected during her nine years in the Liberty City development.

For Edwards and hundreds of other tenants at Scott and the nearby Carver Homes, the impending changes are part of a revolutionary federal strategy not just to house poor people, but to provide them with the skills to lift their lives and rebuild their neighborhoods. The county will raze 856 units of housing at Scott and Carver and replace them with 411 homes, town houses and apartments. Only 120 of the new units will be public housing, with the rest earmarked for purchase.

The demolition, which may start later this month, will mark Miami's entry into the world of HOPE VI, a multibillion-dollar federal overhaul of public housing launched a decade ago.


Federal and local housing officials say the program -- Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere -- is the answer to years of massive deterioration, overcrowding, crime and poverty in public housing. Critics, including housing activists and tenants, say it is a sinister exercise that displaces the poor and worsens already chronic shortages of affordable housing.

Across the country, some HOPE VI projects have been criticized for delivering little or no benefits to public housing tenants. In most cases, HOPE VI projects yield fewer public housing units than existed before. There is no guarantee that every former tenant will be able to live in the new developments. And education, job training and other promised services are not always provided.

Another source of controversy is the rules allowing displaced tenants to rent or purchase HOPE VI homes. Tenants must have a job, pass a credit check, and attend college or vocational school. They also cannot be involved in any violent crime or drug-related activity for two years before their return.

The regulations, which some Scott/Carver tenants helped draft, are meant to weed out potential scofflaws or deadbeat renters.

At Scott/Carver, Miami-Dade housing administrators want to create a landscaped village where low-income families live beside more affluent neighbors. Some apartments will be atop retail spaces that could host restaurants, grocery stores and boutiques. The goal is to encourage more economic development. The project's cost is estimated at $106 million, a mix of federal, local and private dollars.

The new buildings will replace cracked two-story cinder block eyesores whose apartments are poorly ventilated and where few units have air conditioning. During the summer, residents complain that it's 10 degrees hotter inside than outside.


Numbers paint a bleak economic picture of the current residents. More than 75 percent of families are considered extremely low-income, earning less than 30 percent of the Miami's area median income of $43,140. About 68 percent of families receive some type of public assistance, such as food stamps or welfare. A similar percentage of households are headed by someone who is unemployed.

The new development will reverse the neighborhood's fortunes, said Rick Herrera, a division director with the Miami-Dade Housing Agency.

''The nation is moving to stop the warehousing of people,'' Herrera said. ``Public housing has not been the answer to our problems.''

During construction, tenants have the option to move to other public housing, or use vouchers to rent or purchase a home that is not at Scott/Carver.

Ozie Porter, a cafeteria worker at a North Miami-Dade County elementary school, has toured several homes and is considering buying one in Broward County or South Miami-Dade. She has no plans to return to Liberty City, with its reputation -- deserved or not -- for drugs and crime.

''I need a change. No, we need a change,'' Porter said, alluding to her son, Erick, 19. ``Erick needs to see more in life than over here.''

The HOPE VI program also pays for residents to take GED preparation classes or vocational or college courses. And Miami-Dade officials have started a homebuyer's program in which participants deposit money each month into a savings account for a future down payment.

Lottie Hines, a longtime public housing tenant and a HOPE VI peer counselor, has been encouraging fellow tenants to take advantage of the program. She believes that the larger the stake that residents hold in its future, the more influence they will have over how the new Scott/Carver development evolves.

''Anything can happen if we sit back and allow it,'' Hines said. ``If we have to keep fighting, so be it.''

Critics say too few low-income public housing tenants have the chance for better housing options.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which administers the HOPE VI program, gives the misleading impression, through local housing agencies, that all public housing tenants will be able to buy a house or rent a better apartment, critics say. In reality, they say, many end up in other public housing developments and are no better off than before.

''I know I can come back,'' Edwards said. ``But I'd like to see that option for many more.''

Also, in trying to build single-family homes, housing authorities destroy valuable units that cannot be replaced. More than 44,000 public housing units will be eliminated when HOPE VI projects nationwide are completed, according to a report by the Center for Community Change, a housing advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

At Scott/Carver, only 30 percent of on-site units will be public housing. The county will sell the 291 other units to low- and moderate-income people. Returnees will get first preference, but there are no guarantees that they will qualify for a mortgage. Since the county earlier this year created the home-buying program aimed at families earning as little as $10,300 annually, 52 families have enrolled.

Worries about how many former residents will actually benefit from the new HOPE VI projects were reflected in interviews with public housing tenants across the country, including some at Scott, conducted for the report of the Center for Community Change.

''Our concern is that over the last 10 years, the program is about making properties look pretty, but not dealing with people's lives,'' said Dashaw Hockett, a policy analyst for the center, who interviewed Scott residents.

Mary Reese, a plaintiff in a federal suit claiming that Miami-Dade County is illegally forcing residents to move, said the $35 million in federal funds to improve conditions at Scott/ Carver should benefit the original tenants.

''A lot of people have got fat off us, and we haven't gotten anything,'' Reese said.


Rene Rodriguez, executive director of the Miami-Dade Housing Agency, said the county will strive to make the relocation and return process as easy as possible.

''HOPE VI is not a cure-all,'' he said. ``But if they work with us, we'll make it happen.''

Earlier this year, after relentless prodding from activists, the county housing agency added 590 subsidized off-site rental units and affordable homes in the surrounding neighborhood specifically for Scott/Carver tenants. Those homes are not part of the new HOPE VI project.

One of those waiting to move into her off-site home is Scott tenant Octavia Anderson. She gave up publicly protesting HOPE VI when she realized that change was inevitable. Now she is simply eager for construction on her home, which is three months behind schedule, to be done.

''I want to raise my family and try to make a better life for them,'' said Anderson, a single mother of six. ``It's stressful now, but once we move we'll be more stable. My fight with HOPE VI will be over.''