From Knight Manor to Nightmare

Just when a forlorn section of Liberty City is about to get the help it so desperately needs, along comes Miller Dawkins on his political bulldozer

In a January 5 memo to Assistant City Attorney Linda Kelly Kearson, Alfredo Duran (one of Hepburn's staffers) raised more questions. Duran noticed that the purchase agreement Levine signed in late 1994 stated a price of $700,000, with the land composing only ten percent of the cost. The apartments were going to be torn down; why, Duran wanted to know, was the city paying $700,000 for $70,000 worth of property?

He also remarked on the wavering scope of the planned development. The Urban League told him the development would consist of between 70 and 90 single-family homes, while the grant applications described a 134-unit mix of townhouses and single-family homes.

With all these unresolved issues, Duran doubted the January 8 closing deadline could be met. Levine reluctantly agreed to push the closing back to January 31.

On January 26, Duran wrote another, longer memo, this one to his boss, Elbert Waters. Although the the scope of the project was still in flux, he noted, the developers had submitted a budget with a total project cost of nearly $15 million. At that price, Duran pointed out, each home in a 134-unit complex would cost an average of $111,000 to build, a figure that "appear[s] to be very high as well as making it difficult to provide these units as affordable housing."

It's evident from his memo that the relocation of current Knight Manor residents caused Duran some concern. By law, the Urban League would be required to relocate everyone to adequate housing A an expensive process in which each tenant is entitled to up to four years of rent subsidies, plus money to cover the cost of moving. Yet the Urban League budgeted only $180,000 for relocation. Wrote Duran: "[B]ased on past experiences by the City of Miami with relocation activities [the amount] is understated."

By now nearly everyone who rented at Knight Manor has moved out, many without all the aid to which they were entitled.

Some people, claims resident Climmy Taylor, didn't receive anything at all. "The Urban League told them they had to go and they left," Taylor gripes.

Not Taylor. He refuses to leave his two-bedroom apartment until he gets the $700 in moving expenses the Urban League is required to pay him. "I'm going to need to rent a U-Haul," he grumbles. "I'm going to have to buy some boxes. How am I going to move if I don't get money?"

Miami Legal Services attorney Carole Fruman is helping several residents secure the benefits to which they are entitled. In her fifteen years as a housing attorney, Fruman says, she has never seen a relocation program so poorly run. "It was a mess, an absolute mess, because nothing had been done in the order that it had to be done," she explains. "It has been my experience that there are occasions where relocations are not completely complied with, but I haven't run across one like this where virtually nothing has been done."

Oliver Gross, the Urban League's director of development, admits his organization was caught off-guard. "We underestimated the cost," he says. "We just underestimated that one." In a revised budget, the amount of money allotted to relocation rose from $180,000 to more than $500,000. Fruman believes that when the relocation is finally completed, the costs could be even higher.

In his memo to Elbert Waters, Duran also noted that in the first budget submitted to the city, developers' fees, general overhead, and administration costs totaled nearly two million dollars A almost half of what the developers foresaw in such payments for the entire project. The city's financial contribution to the project, meanwhile, amounted to less than twenty percent of the $15 million budget.

On the scheduled day of the closing, Assistant City Attorney Linda Kelly Kearson advised Waters that the developers had still not provided her office with any evidence that the project would be affordable to low- and very-low-income families and individuals. Without this assurance, she noted, the city could not legally transfer the money needed to pay for the land. The closing was suspended indefinitely.

In letters to city officials, Levine implored that the closing take place as soon as possible. Any further delays could jeopardize his agreement to buy the land, as had been the case with Tacolcy's ill-fated bid.

On the other hand, Levine was billing the City of Miami for his time. He is an attorney. And although he is the president of the development company -- and although he and the Urban League employed two other law firms to work on the project -- Levine submitted bills for $18,200 in fees.

In response, Kearson did not challenge his right to bill for his time. She did, however, complain that he had charged for services dating back to October 1994 A months before the city became involved.

Levine adjusted his billing hours accordingly and submitted a new bill: for $20,600.

"My law firm billed for the legal work performed on behalf of the project prior to closing. The work was provided with an expectation of payment and was approved by the partners," he says.

The closing finally occurred on February 15. The city paid the entire $700,000 purchase price, plus a $25,000 bill to cover closing costs. The itemized statement Levine submitted included $12,250 in "attorneys' fees." Kearson later wrote in a memo to Cesar Odio that the city had already paid two different law firms a total of $15,000 in fees for the closing. She wondered how Levine had justified an additional $12,250.

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