Raze and Rebuild

Scott Homes residents realize their apartments are dirty, dangerous, and crowded. Yet many want to stay.

The largest public-housing project in Florida stretches from all sides of Trena's front porch like the garrison of some battle-fatigued army. The beige walls and brown roofs of the two-story buildings that make up the James E. Scott Homes replicate in staggered rows across 50 acres of former landfill.

This afternoon the structures couldn't appear more drab or dull. Lead-gray clouds suffocate the sky and a recent rain has turned the sandy earth to mud. Trena has fled her dark, humid apartment for the porch, where she is weaving blond extensions into her neighbor Bernadine Dent's hair. Nineteen-year-old Trena's own locks are contained in a black net. An ice-cream truck rolls by, luring kids from the concrete-slab porches like a night-light attracts moths. The entire small universe that is the projects seems to pass by on the street: a white-and-green Orkin truck on a rendezvous with some roaches, a Miami-Dade police cruiser, a tricked-out Lincoln full of young bangers low-riding on chrome rims, a shiny white county car carrying a social worker, a dusty truck with a bed full of dusty laborers.

"I'll miss the neighborhood," says Dent as she surveys the puddle-pocked street. "I been here five years, and we had about three incidents. But otherwise our row is very quiet, very quiet." Incidents mean murders the 35-year-old has witnessed. "One boy, he was buying ice cream, and two guys rolled up and shot him up. We were all sitting out here on the porch. Another time we saw a boy get chased and shot right over there. We were all yelling, 'Don't do it, don't do it.' And one time my daughter was talking to somebody and he pushed her down just as he got shot. But beside that, in five years, it's been quiet."

Homicides aren't the only quality-of-life issue in Scott and its neighboring complex, Carver Homes. The structures are deteriorating. Far less than half of the apartments have air conditioners. Cracked foundations and walls have allowed vermin to enter. In some buildings roaches crawl on the walls in thick clusters. Plumbing frequently breaks in the decades-old system, backing up sinks and toilets. Roof leaks leave mildew stains on the walls.

The county expects federal approval soon for a plan to transform Scott and Carver homes into a new style of public housing. All the residents will likely have to depart and less than half will be able to return. Most agree on the need for better maintenance and upkeep, but many are reluctant to leave. This may be the projects, but it's their projects. For many it's the only home they know.

Scott Homes, and its smaller neighbor, Carver Homes, both located in the area of NW 22nd Avenue between 62nd and 79th streets, are the result of segregationist social engineering and genuine concern for the county's poorest citizens. Now, 45 years after opening, it's all been declared a mistake: the herding of a destitute population into a fringe location, the unventilated design of the dwellings, and construction of a small city of numbing sameness.

So, beginning in February 2000, the county intends to raze Scott-Carver. Provided the Miami-Dade Housing Agency wins a U.S. HUD grant this summer, 850 buildings will be demolished by 2002. In their place 462 townhouses will likely rise. Roughly 3500 residents face relocation.

Bernadine Dent and Trena are understandably apprehensive. For them and other denizens, the county's plans are reminiscent of past governmental efforts at mass displacement. In the 1960s thousands of blacks were rousted from their homes when Interstate 95 was built through Overtown. This past year the U.S. government settled a federal lawsuit filed in Miami by acknowledging that officials had been steering low-income blacks to the housing projects while giving other races vouchers to rent from private landlords. That revelation rubbed raw the wounds caused by precivil rights-era segregation.

"I am concerned with this history of community engineering, where they move people around like sacks of potatoes," says activist Max Rameau, who has agitated for more government concessions. "I don't trust HUD. They have basically admitted sending us to bad places. And with the level of corruption in the county, especially in the construction industry, this is a recipe for disaster for the most vulnerable segment of society."

Like many Scott residents, Rameau suspects that the rebuilding plans are intended to remove black occupants so other groups, perhaps the white middle class, can move in.

Miami-Dade Housing Agency spokeswoman Sherra McLeod has heard all this before. "The fear that these homes are going to be taken over by other minorities, it's just not going to happen," she says. In fact county officials speak of the changes optimistically. Better conditions will make amends for past mistakes. The bureaucrats and engineers will create a quaint community where low-income residents can buy their homes and ultimately be lifted "from dependence and persistent poverty," as described in HUD's executive summary.

The county has applied for a $40.4 million grant from the HUD's HOPE VI Revitalization Program. (HOPE is an acronym for Home Ownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere.) The Miami-Dade Housing Agency will add $39.4 million from its own budget, the county will provide roughly $13 million, the program's income will generate $1.8 million, and another $11 million will come from other sources. The total proposed spending for the new Scott Homes is $106 million. Even if the feds deny the grant, local housing authorities plan to proceed with some part of the renovation.

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