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Miami Herald - November 8, 2006

Miami-Dade Housing Agency
gets new boss


Hoping to climb out of numerous scandals in Miami-Dade's affordable-housing programs, County Manager George Burgess announced Wednesday that he selected a senior official from the Tampa Housing Authority to take over the beleaguered Miami-Dade Housing Agency.

Among Kris Warren's tasks will be to improve internal operations and implement proposed reforms, including large fines and possible jail sentences for developers or homeowners who bilk the system.

''I'm passionate about housing,'' said Warren, 39, the Tampa agency's senior vice president and chief operating officer. ``Miami-Dade is open to changes and has an opportunity to make those changes.''

Burgess selected Warren after a three-month national search, picking her from six finalists culled from more than 140 applicants.

''While it cannot happen overnight, I know Ms. Warren shares our commitment to move in a direction that will fast-track delivery of the county's housing initiatives,'' Burgess wrote in a memo to county leaders.

Miami-Dade officials have been turning to Tampa for help since September and are asking the commission to spend up to $100,000 to reimburse the Tampa agency for consulting through Dec. 1.

Housing activists were nonplussed by the announcement, saying problems at the housing agency run deeper than its leadership.

''[The agency] needs more than a new director -- it needs new direction,'' said Sushma Sheth, communications director for the Miami Workers Center.

The county commission will likely vote on Warren's confirmation on Nov. 28, when a number of other housing proposals are also scheduled for debate, including:

• An overhaul of the infill housing program, which allows builders to acquire land cheaply to build homes that are sold below market value to low- and moderate-income families.

• Fines of up to $10,000 and jail sentences of up to 60 days for violating the rules of the infill program. The existing program has no such penalties.

• A study into issuing up to $200 million worth of bonds to meet activists' demands to expand affordable-housing programs.

• Authority for Burgess to expedite repair of existing affordable housing and construction of new units by allowing shorter advertising time for bids, smaller selection committees and negotiation of contracts before approval from the commission.


The problems with infill housing were detailed in a Miami Herald investigation, House of Lies, published in July. The four-part series exposed widespread mismanagement and misspending at the Miami-Dade Housing Agency, which paid a cadre of developers millions of dollars for affordable housing that was never built.

Even when houses were built, some developers bypassed the poor to sell to real-estate investors, buyers who owned more than one property or families who flipped the houses for a quick profit.

That flipping was among a string of problems that tainted the infill program, which was conceived five years ago and drew national recognition for bringing new life to empty lots scattered across the county.

''We are going to be closely tracking progress,'' said Wendi Norris, director of the county's General Services Administration, which recently took over management of the infill program.

Amid The Miami Herald's stories, Burgess ousted six Housing Agency officials. Local and federal agencies are investigating.

The proposed changes to the infill program would dramatically increase the county's regulation and oversight. For at least 30 years, houses built under the program could only be sold to families whose income is below levels set by the federal government. At current levels, certain properties would be available to a family of four making up to $78,260, and others would be reserved for families earning $27,950 or less.

Maximum prices for the houses would also be fixed by the county.

Owners would be required to live in the house as their primary residence, and the county would have to approve future sales.


The revamped program, however, will require intensive monitoring of real-estate values across the county, and some fear it could hurt the very people it is intended to help.

Because the homes would be locked into below-market prices, the owners would not profit as much as other homeowners when they sell and might have trouble finding brokers willing to handle the transaction.

''You're creating second-class homeowners,'' said John Little, a community development lawyer at Legal Services of Greater Miami. ``You're forcing them to sell it for a greatly reduced rate.''

Norris said the price caps were necessary to ensure prices remain affordable for future low-income buyers.

The idea of raising up to $200 million by issuing new bonds was sponsored by Commissioner Dorrin Rolle. It matches demands made in late September by a coalition of groups seeking a major immediate investment in new affordable housing.

Sheth said she was cautiously optimistic about the bill, which would require Burgess to present a feasibility study about the bonds by the end of January.

''Rolle's legislation answers the call of hundreds of Miami-Dade residents that spent the night on the lawn of government center,'' Sheth said, referring to an overnight demonstration held in September. ``Will this legislation build more lies or the foundation for accountable and community-driven development in Miami-Dade County?''

Miami Herald staff writer Debbie Cenziper contributed to this report.