To Have and Have Not

Activists in Miami Beach's north shore neighborhoods say government-subsidized housing is crowding them out

In 1989 Normandy Isle homeowners successfully lobbied Miami Beach commissioners for landscaped barricades. But residents find they're still feeling uneasy about their lower-income neighbors, especially those who have their rent subsidized by the federal government. And when a local civic and business group began questioning subsidized housing distribution on the north shore, they ignited a feud between the city and the Miami Beach Housing Authority, a feud that prompted acting City Manager Carla Talarico to challenge the very existence of the agency.

The three-year-old North Beach Development Corporation wanted to know why the Miami Beach Housing Authority had approved 35 Section 8 rent-subsidy certificates for the Sir Herbert Motel, a derelict pair of buildings at 1930-1950 71st St. The property had been purchased by a corporation that initially included State Rep. Alberto Gutman (R-Miami) as an officer, and planned to renovate it as government-subsidized housing. In exchange for fixing up the abandoned structures, under the federal Section 8 program, the owners would be guaranteed rent subsidies for their tenants over a fifteen-year period. The rehab project, which was begun in 1989, is nearly completed, and families are expected to begin moving in during the next few weeks.

The members of the NBDC noticed that in a five-block area around the Sir Herbert, a total of 30 apartments were subsidized under the Section 8 program. Once the former motel is filled to capacity, that number will rise to 65 - more than three times the number of units allowed within a five-block radius, according to guidelines set by the Miami Beach Housing Authority. The agency's violation of its own rule caused the group to wonder whether similar concentrations of Section 8 housing existed on the north shore.

"We are concerned about the impact of Section 8 because of the presence it makes," says Bodil Coletta, a member of the NBDC board. "It is difficult for store owners to survive if apartments are filling up with low, low-income people. How can they shop and support the businesses? I'm not saying we just want rich people living here. But if we put in too many Section 8 projects, we can't get a developer to come in and do something."

When the NBDC took its findings to Murray Gilman, the housing authority's executive director, the long-time agency head was unequivocal. The guidelines were not etched in stone, he told the group. The authority's board of directors puts Section 8 housing where it feels the community will be best served. Moreover, the executive director went on to note, all three projects in that five-block area - the Sir Herbert, Cielo Apartments, 1930-1940 Marseilles Dr., and Twin Waters Apartments, 1955-1965 Calias Dr. - previously had been a disgrace to the neighborhood. With the federally facilitated renovations, they became the most attractive buildings on their streets, with freshly painted facades, new windows, overhauled interiors, and well-kept yards. "Don't forget - we took depressed buildings, and these landlords bought them and put them in shape," says Gilman. "They did it because the property needed refurbishing. The property was the important thing."

Murray Gilman's explanation failed to satisfy the NBDC, which next confronted acting City Manager Carla Talarico. Gilman's explanation didn't satisfy her, either. Unconvinced that the housing authority was enforcing its own rules on the north shore, Talarico wondered how the rest of the city was faring with regard to subsidized housing. In Miami Beach, a total of 3000 families receive federal rent subsidies under the Section 8 program. Hialeah, by comparison, has a population roughly twice that of Miami Beach, and only 2500 families there receive rent subsidies or live in public housing. Coral Gables, about half the population of Miami Beach, offers little or no subsidized housing. "Miami Beach is seven square miles," says Talarico. "Three thousand units is quite a bit of Section 8 housing."

When Talarico asked the housing authority for a complete breakdown of its Section 8 rolls, the agency at first refused to make the information public. Last week, in response to a second formal request, they complied. (The housing authority, in turn, has formally requested copies of all documents pertaining to the Section 8 program and the city's dealings with the NBDC.)

Long before Talarico had the breakdown in hand, she had already taken an unprecedented step. In an August 30 letter to regional administrators for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Talarico asked that the federal government refuse to approve the housing authority's plan to expand one of its Section 8 programs by 95 units. Those proposed subsidies would go to landlords seeking to renovate six Miami Beach buildings, two of which are located on the north shore. The other four are on South Beach. "To my knowledge, this is the first time we have ever contested their housing plans," Talarico says of the housing authority. "They were violating their own procedures and policies." The federal government has not yet responded to the city manager's letter.

One of the proposed projects Talarico finds objectionable is the Sherry Villas, a sixteen-unit building at 6605 Collins Ave. The Sherry Villas, notes Talarico, stands within a block of the Sterling, a $16.5 million luxury condominium tower currently under construction. Next door to the Sterling is a $10 million apartment project that merely awaits final approval before construction can commence. And the Deauville Hotel, two doors north of the Sherry Villas, is undergoing a major renovation. "We have a concern any time oceanfront is used for subsidized housing," says Talarico. "I question the wisdom of [the housing authority's] decision, based on the highest and best use of oceanfront property, which is a relatively fragile resource."

Talarico has gone so far as to ask city commissioners to alter the make-up of the Miami Beach Housing Authority, whose appointments are made by the mayor and ratified by the commission. At their October 9 meeting, commissioners directed Talarico's staff to explore ways to make the board more representative of areas containing subsidized housing. One option is to expand the five-member board. Another is to make sure that some of the board's members live in affected neighborhoods. Yet another, less likely possibility is to abolish the board and have the commission take over.

Howard Galbut, chairman of the five-member board of directors that governs the housing authority, thinks that something more insidious lurks beneath the attack on his agency. "[Talarico] is being misinformed by this so-called north shore group," he maintains. "This group is prejudiced against the elderly, poor, and disabled."

Not true, retorts the NBDC's Bodil Coletta. "It's so touchy. Before you know, they call you a racist and this and that. I'm not like that. I've been rich and I've also been poor. We're not trying to get rid of Section 8," Coletta insists. "We're really trying to be fair about this. If nobody stops it, it's going to increase more and more.

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