The Real McGuffin

Neil McGuffin was supposed to guide the Miami Beach Housing Authority into the new millennium. Instead he exposed an agency in disarray. And he lost his job.

Among those who have asked the MBHA for help is 52-year-old Randall Neighbert. He is thin, wiry, and unafraid of a hard day's work. The hair on his head -- trim and graying -- is combed neatly back and he has the sort of neat mustache you would expect to see on a state trooper. In his burgundy penny loafers, white dress socks pulled way up high on his calves, white shorts, and mint-blue T-shirt, he looks more like a tourist caught in a too-fashion-savvy resort town than a homeless man. A few weekends ago, he was sharing a beer with his friend Peter Demos, age 41, who, like him, has no permanent address. The two sat at one of the sheltered wooden tables at South Pointe Park, the picnic area adjacent to the southernmost pier in South Beach.

A mechanical engineer by trade, Neighbert has spent the greater part of his life working in Panama. Since coming to Miami a year and a half ago, he has taken to sleeping behind a prominent South Beach hotel at night and searching for work during the day. "Who's gonna give you an engineering job when you're 50 years old?" he asks.

The MBHA's Betty Gutierrez, John Beloff, Ruth Pasarell, and Charles Burkett IV are smiling. Amy Turkell (not pictured), the board member who resigned, is not
Steve Satterwhite
The MBHA's Betty Gutierrez, John Beloff, Ruth Pasarell, and Charles Burkett IV are smiling. Amy Turkell (not pictured), the board member who resigned, is not
Olga Golik of Catholic Charities says the MBHA's board is anti-affordable housing
Steve Satterwhite
Olga Golik of Catholic Charities says the MBHA's board is anti-affordable housing

Several weeks ago Neighbert stopped at the MBHA offices hoping to find a place to rent. He had earned a little cash setting up outdoor carnivals and festivals in the Miami area, so he assumed the authority would help him. With an address he could upgrade to a better job. "There wasn't even an interview," he says. "They told me there wasn't anything for me.... If you're not crazy or an alcoholic or a drug addict, you're not going to get help." Indeed Neighbert was turned away because the authority had no room. There are already 1200 people on a closed waiting list who hope to get a Section 8 subsidy or the next available apartment.

The MBHA was born in the early 1950s to help provide low- and moderate-income people with affordable housing. According to 1990 census figures, the most recent available, there are 35,614 rental units in Miami Beach. Today the MBHA offers rent aid for 3097 apartments, about one out of every twelve. Most of these places, 2372, are owned by private landlords who accept payment in government certificates and vouchers for up to 70 percent of rental costs. The other 725 apartments either belong to the authority or, in a few cases, to landlords specially designated by the MBHA. All of the apartments are supposed to pass a safety inspection.

This year the federal government approved $15,873,120 for the agency, mostly in the form of the rent vouchers and certificates that are turned over to tenants. The MBHA has a salaried staff of 48 and a volunteer board of five. The mayor recommends board members for four-year terms; appointments must be approved by the city commission. The board is charged with setting policy, as well as hiring and firing the executive director.

Over the years the agency has been a key force in softening the effect of the Miami Beach development explosion on the poor, according to Matti Bower, who served three years on the MBHA board before being elected a city commissioner this past November. "There is a great need for the authority if we don't want to become increasingly gentrified," she says. "Old people, working single mothers, young folks ... and people of a lot of different nationalities have benefited."

Olga Golik, a program administrator for Catholic Charities, a countywide nonprofit that helps the poor find housing, training, and work, disagrees. Not only has the MBHA done a poor job of creating affordable housing opportunities, she says, but the city has been complicit. "Miami Beach has been anti-affordable housing for at least five or six years now," she asserts. "The city commission appointed [MBHA] board members because they are not in favor of affordable housing."

Burkett was a key organizer in a 1995 citizens' effort to return about three million dollars in HUD funds, money given to the city for the development of affordable housing, Golik contends. The move to give back the money failed, but it reflects the city's anti-affordable-housing sentiment. "As a result, the city did not spend a lot of money on housing for the homeless," Golik says. "There weren't any housing programs that received capital dollars."

Burkett, who was first appointed to the board by former Mayor Seymour Gelber in 1996 and reappointed by current Mayor Neisen Kasdin, dismisses the claims that he has failed to promote the MBHA's mission. He simply wanted to convert money budgeted for constructing facilities to cash for repairing old ones. "I have always been a supporter of affordable housing," he says. "Being a staunch preservationist, I wanted to see existing buildings renovated rather than new buildings constructed."

One reason Neighbert and those thousand-plus folks on the waiting list continue hoping for a place, is that the agency's bookkeeping isn't very good. According to a March 1999 report -- one of the several reviews spearheaded by McGuffin and carried out by hired consultants -- as a result of poor planning, the Section 8 program passed up four million dollars of HUD money that could have been used to lease 612 more apartments for the poor. "It is clear that the MBHA has perhaps permanently lost hundreds of Section 8 units," according to the report, which was drafted by Casterline Associates, a Pennsylvania accounting and consulting firm.

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