Home Sweet Homeless

After four years and $2.5 million, Sugar Hill's housing for AIDS patients still isn't finished

The dove-gray Sugar Hill housing complex on NW Fourteenth Court is bordered by tall metal fences. A security guard watches over it 24 hours a day. Yet some of the windows are broken and appliances have been looted from unoccupied apartments. Aluminum railings along walkways are rusted at their joints and a few building facades show spots of bare cinder block. Almost four years after Sugar Hill was slated for completion, no one has moved in. Now the contractor is seeking $147,500 more than the initial projection of $2.5 million to finish the 24 apartments for people with AIDS.

Construction delays, particularly at federally funded projects such as Sugar Hill, are nothing new. But even bureaucrats overseeing the Liberty City endeavor concede that the wait has been abnormally long. For many AIDS victims and their advocates, the project exemplifies waste and mismanagement of sorely needed public dollars. The advocates have long complained of Sugar Hill's location in an area that rates among Florida's highest for both AIDS and crime. They also criticize the project's extraordinary cost of more than $104,000 per unit. "It's an outrage," asserts Rufus Witherspoon, an AIDS patient and long-time activist. "People with AIDS are dying before they can get decent housing, and here they are spending millions of dollars on some place in a drug-infested neighborhood where nobody wants to live."

The City of Miami, which administers the federal Housing Opportunities for People With AIDS (HOPWA) program in Miami-Dade County, awarded $4.6 million in 1993 to three local social service agencies for building and operating housing complexes. Sugar Hill, which is being developed by the Economic Opportunity Family Health Center, is the largest and most expensive of the three. The other two -- located in Naranja and northeast Dade -- have significant money and management problems. But at least they are finished.

While experts on the disease acknowledge there is a shortage of housing for AIDS sufferers who have lost jobs and insurance coverage, they are unable to determine exactly how many people need permanent housing such as Sugar Hill's. Several local agencies have waiting lists for rent assistance numbering in the hundreds. Almost 20,000 adults and adolescents in Greater Miami suffer from AIDS, the fourth-highest number in any U.S. metropolitan area. Yet several facilities, such as those in Naranja and northeast Dade, have had difficulty attracting low-income tenants. The most important reasons seem to be that many prospective tenants cannot meet occupancy requirements, which include references as well as documentation of poor health and limited income.

The HOPWA advisory board met July 9 in emergency session to consider Family Health Center's request for the additional money to finish Sugar Hill. Representatives of the builder, Sterling Contractors, said the surcharge is needed for an activity center and to meet new code requirements. This week the board demanded more details and postponed a decision until August. "We want some guarantee they won't come back again wanting more money," says Gene Suarez, advisory board chairman. The county commission must also approve the increase.

Sugar Hill, which will exceed $110,000 per unit if the additional funds are granted, is unusually high-priced for AIDS housing. Another HOPWA project operated by Lock Towns Community Mental Health Center in northeast Dade cost $89,000 per unit to complete. The Naranja project totaled almost $95,000 per unit. And an AIDS housing complex on Miami Beach (only a part of which was funded by HOPWA) was built for $60,000 per unit. Given the unsettling appearance of the Sugar Hill buildings, the cause of the cost overruns is hard to fathom.

The project got off to a poor start when contractor Tecina International, which also worked on the Lock Towns project, declared bankruptcy in October 1996. It took two years to hire a new contractor, settle with the former bonding company, and get new construction permits. "We just got caught up in an unhappy situation," explains Reginald Kline, an attorney for Family Health Center. "Every project I know of in the county has change orders."

Critics have complained to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (the agency overseeing HOPWA) about Sugar Hill's slow progress. They have even asked the city to choose a new contractor. A year ago federal HOPWA director David Vos inspected the site, according to Paul Eisenhart, an administrator with the city. "He just asked us if we're doing everything we can to get it moving," Eisenhart says. Vos was out of town last week and couldn't be reached for comment. Barbara Davidson of the HOPWA office in Washington observes, "Most of our projects are up and running. We do have some troubled complexes, however, and one is in Miami."

Family Health Center has been predicting the imminent opening of Sugar Hill about every six months since 1996. The latest proposed completion date, Labor Day, rings as hollow as ever. It is doubtful the county commission will even consider the funding increase by then.

Some AIDS advocates are opposed to any further HOPWA funding of permanent housing like Sugar Hill. They argue the cash would be better spent on programs that help low-income AIDS sufferers pay for rent, utilities, and other needs. Such assistance usually allows people with AIDS to stay where they currently live.

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