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May 27, 2004 - Miami New Times

They want to build decent homes for poor people, but they can't get through the county's House of Horrors

By Forrest Norman

Jerry Flick wants to build affordable housing for Miami-Dade residents, and there's only one thing standing in his way: The Miami-Dade Housing Agency
Jerry Flick
This past April, when Rene Rodriguez retired as director of the Miami-Dade Housing Agency, his surprise announcement was accompanied by a florid memo to County Manager George Burgess in which the housing agency's achievements were extolled, while the media's criticism of his stumbling efforts to provide housing for poor families was decried as "unfairly skewed". Rodriguez spared no superlatives in describing his colleagues and supervisors: "I am guided and flanked by the finest individuals public service has ever assembled".

Yet even as Rodriguez consulted his thesaurus, developer Jerry Flick was drafting another letter, a thirteen-page diatribe that also addressed the Miami-Dade Housing Agency (MDHA). Flick's letter was of a different sort, however, and would likely be characterized by Rodriguez as "unfairly skewed."

In January 2003 Flick received five vacant residential lots through the county's Infill Housing Initiative. The program donates such county-owned parcels to qualified developers in exchange for an agreement to build affordable single-family homes within one year. Flick has been building homes in South Florida for 30 years, and he had plans ready for affordable housing units to be built through his nonprofit organization, the Housing League, Inc.

Now, he says, he wishes he'd taken more time to investigate the properties provided by the county. As it turns out, he couldn't build on any of them. Four had title problems, and all five had liens placed against them. Flick, a grandfatherly gadfly who has taken up the cause of reforming local affordable-housing efforts, spent months and some $35,000 of his own money getting the parcels in shape for construction.

Then, while trying to line up financing to build the homes, he ran into another problem: All the titles were issued with a reverter clause stipulating that the county would repossess the lots if homes weren't built within a year. Financial institutions were loath to lend money because they had no claim on the property in case of default. Flick wanted the county to give his lender first dibs on the property so he could get started on construction.

Instead of answers or help, however, Flick says he spent months petitioning the county and received little response. "It would take weeks for phone calls or letters to be returned," he recounts. Flick's frustration boiled over into anger, and a resolve to keep pestering people until housing authorities started making sense. To that end he has written numerous letters, made countless phone calls to city and county affordable-housing authorities, and even showed up at the office of Miami City Manager Joe Arriola offering to work for 90 days with the city's housing agency for one dollar. (Not surprisingly, Flick never heard from Arriola again.)

He's not the only developer trying to build affordable homes who has become stuck in the housing agency's bureaucratic quagmire. Ed Gorman, president of American Community Partnerships, a national nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., is also familiar with the Infill Housing Initiative. His organization, which provides job training for public housing residents in Miami, received five residential lots through the infill initiative in November 2001. They planned to have houses built within a year. "We didn't really want to make money on this -- we just wanted to build on the five lots and say, 'Look, we can do this and do it the right way.'" None of the homes has been built, and Gorman says he's lost $50,000 bickering with the county. "It's been a process that's impossible to navigate through," he complains. "For every person of goodwill in the county government, there seem to be several others who spend time thinking of ways to keep you from succeeding."

By April 2002 the MDHA still had not secured the approximately $535,000 in financing Gorman was assured he'd receive. Knowing he couldn't meet the one-year construction deadline, he applied for an extension, which was granted in May 2002. But the county didn't secure his financing until September 2002, almost a year after he received the lots, and he got $263,000, less than half of what he was expecting. "We finally just said, 'Okay, we'll take what's available and try to find additional money elsewhere,'" Gorman recounts. In February 2003, Gorman submitted construction plans to the county for approval (after another delay caused when housing officials asked him to build bigger homes than he initially planned).

At this point Gorman thought he was close to being able to break ground, but he had to file for one more extension. "We were told the permits would be granted fairly quickly and we thought we were ready to go," he says. Then in May 2003, the MDHA refused to grant another extension and tried to take back the lots.

"We were within an eyelash of constructing, we thought," Gorman says. "We spent thousands of dollars and we thought we were within 60 days of getting a building permit." But Gorman was in for another surprise: His building permit was denied. He says he was never given a good reason, but eventually he came into possession of an e-mail from MDHA's then-director of new markets, Maria de Pedro-Gonzalez. She sent the message to permitting authorities elsewhere in the county bureaucracy, instructing them to not issue permits to American Community Partnerships. "She said that we were a problem because we'd been complaining to higher-ups about our problems with [MDHA]," Gorman recalls. In the e-mail, de Pedro-Gonzalez wrote, "I just wanted to make sure everything was stopped since they are going higher up complaining about the lots being taken away because of non performance [sic]."

It was true that Ed Gorman and his brother Bourke had met with Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas and voiced concerns about their dealings with MDHA. They also met with assistant county manager Tony Crapp. They say their discussion with the mayor was not an attempt at underhandedness but the result of extreme frustration with the lack of response when they tried to communicate with MDHA officials. "I know Rene Rodriguez," Gorman explains, "and we'd talked many times. But at some point he stopped returning all my phone calls. I never got a return call from the last ten calls I made to his office."

Jerry Flick also has a litany of noncommunication complaints, including one full year of unreturned phone calls from Rodriguez, and numerous unreturned calls and correspondence directed to Emma Duffie, de Pedro-Gonzalez's successor at MDHA. (De Pedro-Gonzalez left the agency in January.)

The miscommunication, however, has been as bad as the lack of communication, according to Flick and Gorman. "It was surreal," Gorman says. "We were told to fill out certain forms, and every time we filled out a form and sent it in, they'd tell us it was the wrong form. Then they'd send us another form and we'd send it in and they'd say, 'That's the wrong form.' It was just nuts."

Flick says his dealings with the county took a strange turn when Emma Duffie became director of new markets: "I thought she was Maria's secretary, so it was a little surprising to me. Then it became clear that she didn't understand some of the terminology when we were talking about housing issues." At the least, she didn't seem to understand the difficulties Flick was experiencing as a result of the reverter clause. She provided him with a list of lenders who supposedly had no problems with the clause. According to Flick, of the five lenders on the list, four were consultants or nonprofits that only dealt with qualified community development corporations. "The fifth one was SunTrust Bank," Flick says. "They just laughed at me when I told them about the reverter clause."

Flick eventually found financing through Neighborhood Housing Lenders, a Tampa-based consortium of banks that funds affordable-housing efforts in South Florida. He's waiting on his building permits. Gorman is fighting the county's efforts to take back the five lots he planned to build on. Neither developer has built a single house in conjunction with the MDHA.