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Miami Herald - February 14, 2007

U.S. may take over Dade housing agency
The troubled Miami-Dade housing agency may come under the control of the federal government or an independent board.


The federal government's public-housing chief wants Washington to play a larger role at Miami-Dade's housing agency and has told local leaders he may try to take control of the troubled department or push for an independent board to run it.

Orlando Cabrera, the assistant secretary who oversees public housing at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said he wants a voluntary, cooperative agreement in which HUD would help the local agency reform its financial system and change the way it works with developers.

But Mayor Carlos Alvarez and two county commissioners said Cabrera has recently dangled more drastic possibilities.

'He said, `What do you think about me putting you guys in receivership?' '' Alvarez said, recalling a Feb. 2 phone call with Cabrera.

By placing the agency in receivership, HUD could oversee all programs that use federal money, including the Section 8 rental-assistance program and the long-delayed HOPE VI program to replace the Scott-Carver public-housing project in Liberty City.

When Alvarez told Cabrera he was not prepared to discuss receivership, he said the secretary responded: ``You know I can do that anyway.''


Cabrera disputed Alvarez's version of events but said he has discussed receivership with County Manager George Burgess.

''Our perfect world would be one where the county and HUD would continue to try to reposition [the housing agency] in a better way than it is currently,'' Cabrera said. ``We would always rather deal with things cooperatively than not.''

Alvarez said the county has already taken aggressive action on problems in the agency, including hiring a new management team, recouping money from deadbeat developers and rewriting a wide range of local rules to expedite construction of affordable homes.

''To talk about some kind of receivership -- I don't think, at this time, it would serve a purpose,'' Alvarez said Tuesday.

Two commissioners, current chairman Bruno Barreiro and predecessor Joe Martinez, said Cabrera went even further in conversations with them, talking about setting up an independent authority to run the agency. Cabrera confirmed those conversations, saying the vast majority of the nation's 3,400 local housing agencies are run by a board of directors, not local governments.

''Most [agencies] have their own balance sheets, assets; they are business entities, for better or worse, that function autonomously,'' he said. ``That's what we need to start having a conversation about in Miami-Dade.''


Any move to seize control of the local agency -- which Armando Fana, director of HUD's Miami field office, said would be ''a fairly drastic measure'' -- would take power away from local leaders, including Alvarez and Burgess.

Cabrera has publicly praised them but said revelations from a not-yet-released federal audit suggest the local agency has deeper problems.

''A lot of things I can't really discuss with you,'' he said. ``There are real issues of federal law and regulation that we need addressed and we're committed to having addressed.''


Receiverships are not uncommon -- they are currently in force in New Orleans, Detroit and Sarasota. In the 1980s, Dade's housing agency was listed for more than five years as a ''troubled agency,'' which can be a precursor to a federal takeover.

Cabrera said his boss, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson, has the authority to impose a receivership and sometimes delegates that power to Cabrera. A HUD spokesman, Jereon Brown, said it was ``a little early for [Jackson] to comment.''

Cabrera said he has no specific timetable for moving forward, ``but sooner would always be better than later.''


Alvarez and other county leaders had planned to fly to Washington today to dissuade Jackson but canceled the trip because of bad weather. The mayor now plans to join most of the commission on a late February lobbying trip to the capitol.

''Intervention is warranted when nothing is getting done and things continue to deteriorate,'' Alvarez said. ``Here it's completely opposite.''

The Housing Agency came under fire last summer after The Miami Herald's House of Lies series exposed insider deals, pet projects and wasteful spending. A series of reports and audits released since has found similar problems.

The disclosures resulted in the dismissal of top managers and a move to recoup $20 million from nonperforming developers.

One, Oscar Rivero, has been arrested and accused of using affordable-housing money to buy himself a South Miami house; a Miami-Dade grand jury last week urged prosecutors to ''press on'' with criminal investigations.


''We've moved forward in making changes and brought in excellent help,'' said Commissioner Dennis Moss, who said he would oppose an independent housing authority. ``We've been really trying to respond to the issue in a positive way.''

The issue is also streaked with local politics.

Cabrera was general counsel and director of South Florida's influential Latin Builders Association in the early 2000s, tying him to local development interests. With less than two years left in President Bush's administration, some have wondered whether Cabrera may be trying to re-establish himself in his old hometown.

Cabrera rejected that suggestion.

''We're home-shopping in Washington, D.C., this week because we're probably not coming back to Miami,'' he said.

``I'm not feathering any nest anywhere.''


An independent housing authority could also sap power away from Alvarez, who won control over the housing agency and most other county departments with last month's strong-mayor referendum.

If a new authority were appointed by county commissioners, they could reassert control over a high-profile, high-budget department -- despite being the same body that allowed it to fall into such a shambles.

But commissioners have rejected such authorities in the past, notably their 2003 rejection of an independent board to oversee Miami International Airport.