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11/7/03 - Miami Herald

Dade seeks means to fill Public Housing

By Andrea Robinson

Miami-Dade commissioners, fearing the county could face a protracted struggle to fill public housing vacancies, voted Thursday to renegotiate a federal housing desegregation order issued five years ago.

By an 9-0 margin, commissioners approved a measure to initiate discussions between the county attorney's office and lawyers for the federal government and plaintiffs about easing the process of getting needy families into subsidized housing.

Despite a lengthy waiting ist, the county housing department has not filled about 1,700 vacant units.


Housing officials say offers are rejected because applicants do not want to move where units are located.

The desegregation order, they say, does not allow flexibility.

Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, who supported the measure, said he has received calls and letters from people seeking public housing who were offered units far from their families and support services, such as doctors and churches.

The change favored by the County Commission would create three geographically zoned housing lists to give applicants more control over where they might live.

The federal order settled an 11-year-old class action lawsuit filed by black Miami-Dade residents who accused officials of illegally steering them toward public housing projects.

They also accused the county of preventing them from obtaining rental vouchers in favor of Hispanic and non-Hispanic white tenants.


The desegregation order applied both to public housing units and rental vouchers for low-income residents. It required the county's housing agency to reserve half its rental vouchers for black tenants of public housing and increase offers of public housing to Hispanics and white non-Hispanics.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs could not be reached for comment.

Terrence Smith, an assistant county attorney who handles housing matters, said attorneys for the plaintiffs, the Justice Department and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development were aware of today's vote.

Any changes to the federal order would have to be approved by a federal judge. The decree is slated to be in effect through 2008.

''There is no real major issue with us because we've been discussing these issues for a number of years,'' Smith, the assistant county attorney, said.

County Manager George Burgess and Housing Director Rene Rodriguez have blamed the desegregation order for the high number of vacancies in the public housing system.

The county also plans to ask HUD for more money to defray the cost of implementing the desegregation settlement.

Rodriguez estimates that Miami-Dade County has spent more than $22 million over the past five years to comply with the order -- far higher than the $2.8 million that officials had earlier believed would be needed.

''It's expensive to administer the settlement the way it's set up,'' said David Morris, the county's budget director. ``It's not having the results because it's hard to place people.''