Clinical Depression

Hounded by budget crises, unflattering audits, and general gripes about management, the Economic Opportunity Family Health Center circles the wagons

Sugar Hill is an expensive project. Its per-unit cost -- more than $100,000 -- is about twice that of other AIDS housing developments in Dade. Shelbourne House on Miami Beach, for example, cost $66,000 per unit. Experts on low-income housing say many factors probably combined to drive up costs: It's expensive to develop in an inner city neighborhood; the properties were in bad shape to start with (one building was demolished, four needed extensive renovation); and the project's small size undoubtedly added to the per-unit bottom line. Still, marvels Cordella Ingram, director of the Miami Supportive Housing Corporation, a branch of a New York nonprofit that assists developers of special-needs housing, "$100,000 is pretty exorbitant."

Family Health Center directors argue that the venture will improve the blighted neighborhood, but critics see other priorities. "Rebuilding the inner city is important, but this much money could have been used to build twice as many apartments somewhere else. So is this best for people with AIDS?" asks Donna MacDonald, former director of the Miami Coalition for the Homeless and a dissenting voice on the HOPWA advisory board that approved the Sugar Hill project.

No one expects vacancies at Sugar Hill once it opens -- there's simply too little affordable housing for AIDS patients in Dade. But when Patricia Jackson recalls her Family Health Center experiences, she can't envision herself as one of the new tenants.

Jackson and her landlord signed a contract with the center this past February for twelve months' rental assistance. But it never did pay her rent; another agency took care of the matter for four months, then sent her back to Family Health Center, where she was told flatly that all the housing money had run out. Served with an eviction notice, she sought help at the Metro-Dade Office of Community Services, which provides up to two months' emergency rental assistance. That ran out in October, but by then Jackson had learned about the extra HOPWA money the city had earmarked for Family Health Center, which she hoped would kick in when the time came.

Jackson, who lives with her eleven-year-old son in a small apartment over a store in Little River, says she began calling the agency even before the end of October, just to make sure everything would be arranged on time. They kept telling her she was on the waiting list -- confusing, given that she'd signed a contract several months earlier. Fortunately, she and her landlord discovered she might be able to qualify for assistance through a different HOPWA agency.

While she awaits word on that application, she has given up on Family Health. "The lady had first told me I'm number five on the waiting list, and now I'm number eighty-seven," Jackson says. "I'm so tired and so stressed out. I can't keep going on a dream, and that's all they're offering -- a dream.

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