By Michael E. Miller
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The idea for the corporation and its name arose in discussions among Menendez and other community activists. "As we talked, we agreed we needed to move forward and go out to the community and improve the surroundings," remembers Nora Smith, who directs the Eugenio Maria de Hostos center. "We realized the majority of the people don't own their own homes; therefore, since they rent, they really don't care for it. There were a lot of transients and no community pride. So what we started talking about was, 'What can we do to turn that around?'"
The answer, the group decided, was to transform renters into owners, by locating funds to build houses and then selling those houses at low prices, financed at low interest rates.
In keeping with his plan for the San Juan mission, Menendez insisted that the corporation reflect Wynwood's Puerto Rican heritage. He asked Willie Ramos to serve as the board chairman; most of the other board members (including Ram centsn Ramos and Nora Smith) have worked closely with Menendez in fundraising for the mission or other local causes. This past September the Miami City Commission allocated $50,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds to the fledgling corporation. In December an executive director was hired. The corporation board hopes to begin negotiating soon for two pieces of property, for rehab and resale to Wynwood families; Menendez says teams of architects have agreed to make blueprints free of charge.
"Initially housing, then the corporation will start looking at attracting businesses to the area," says Luis Carrasquillo, the City of Miami's Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET) administrator for Wynwood and Edgewater. Like Menendez, Carrasquillo holds no position on the development corporation's board but attends meetings as an informal adviser.
Menendez's latest project could be his greatest challenge. His organization isn't the first to tackle economic development in Wynwood, nor the first to join the cutthroat competition for publicly funded housing. Indeed, the Rafael Hernandez corporation was born amid an as-yet-unresolved controversy over the future of the Wynwood Community Economic Development Corporation, whose ambitious Wynwood Free Trade Zone has been stalled for months. The highly touted project was conceived to generate hundreds of jobs and bring to the area $60 million annually, but a dispute between the City of Miami and the WCEDC has put the plan on hold. This past July the Miami City Commission, which had been channeling $50,000 in CDBG money per year to the nonprofit corporation and had donated the land for the free-trade zone, cut off the funds, accusing Bill Rios, the corporation's executive director, of failing to comply with contractual requirements. Rios, in turn, accuses the city of trying to take control of the project. A few months after defunding Rios, commissioners earmarked the Rafael Hernandez HEDC's federal funding.
Bill Rios says it will be hard for Menendez's group to get its housing plans set in real stone. "How is the father going to form an organization to promote home ownership in a community that doesn't sustain home ownership?" he wonders. "It's really more a rental
To Menendez, that's just the point. Wynwood is a rental market. But if renters can gain more stake in their community through small victories, such as closing a crackhouse, choosing a site for a new elementary school, or lobbying successfully for more police protection, he is confident they will stop thinking like transients and will aspire to more. Like owning a house, or preventing the nation's eighth largest seaport from filling their neighborhood with storage containers. "We have to promote the belief that things can change, and not accept the determination that things are bad and going to get worse," says Menendez. "If those who think things can be better run away, then there's no hope.