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She has a way of making bureaucrats tremble. Combative and cantankerous, she combines a lawyer's knowledge of federal housing regulations with an advocate's passion for defending the disenfranchised. The resulting compound can be explosive. Detractors have disparaged Barbara Pierre as a “gang leader”; some have sought court injunctions against her because they felt threatened by her in-your-face style. Yet even those detractors acknowledge the effectiveness of this devout Baptist, recovered alcoholic, and mother of six.
This year Pierre, president of the Liberty Square Residents Council, single-handedly derailed a multimillion-dollar federal revitalization program that threatened to destroy her neighborhood. And while Liberty Square residents and housing activists cheered Pierre's victory, the board that oversees Pierre's residents council, the Overall Tenants Advisory Council (OTAC), tried to remove her from office. But last week cooler heads -- and the law -- prevailed, and Pierre emerged victorious.
(Across Miami-Dade County, 45 resident councils have been created to represent the interests of people living in nearly 100 separate public-housing projects. OTAC, whose ten board members are chosen by the resident councils, fulfills a similar role at the county level.)
Pierre's showdown with OTAC began this past April, when she learned that county housing officials were moving ahead with a plan known as HOPE VI, an ambitious, $3.6 billion federal scheme that calls for tearing down the nation's most dilapidated and overcrowded public-housing projects and replacing them with single-family homes and townhouses, which would be sold to low-income families. Liberty Square, comprising more than 700 housing units at NW Fourteenth Avenue and 62nd Street in Liberty City, was among those slated for participation -- which is to say, demolition. To Pierre's consternation, however, the Miami-Dade Housing Agency (MDHA), which administers the HOPE VI money, had provided few details regarding the plan's implementation at Liberty Square. “No one ever told us what was going on,” she recalls. “We didn't know the first thing about it.”
So Pierre, who has been Liberty Square's president since April, began organizing and educating her neighbors about the plan, which would involve relocating more than 1000 Liberty Square residents to other public housing scattered throughout Miami-Dade County. She exhorted them to attend MDHA meetings. She railed against the plan to county commissioners. This past May she led a protest march from Liberty Square to the Joseph Caleb Center. At every step Pierre meticulously documented her actions, even going so far as to send copies of all her correspondence to HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo.
Rebuilding decrepit housing projects is not a bad idea, Pierre allows, but federal regulations require that residents be included in the planning; allowing them to do so helps reduce the considerable anxiety of such disruptive initiatives. But from Pierre's perspective, county bureaucrats were not adhering to those procedures. “One day there will be a HOPE VI,” she maintains, “but we must do it together.”
So vociferous were her objections to the process, and so effective was her marshaling of support among her neighbors, that county housing officials conceded defeat. On May 18, just one day before the federal deadline to apply for HOPE VI funds, the MDHA decided against seeking the $35 million earmarked for Liberty Square.
If that appeared to be a dramatic victory for Barbara Pierre and her constituents, it was viewed quite differently in other quarters: as a dreadfully expensive lost opportunity for the county. And while Pierre and her neighbors at Liberty Square may have felt a sense of relief, something else began brewing behind the scenes at the Overall Tenants Advisory Council.
On July 19 OTAC president Yvonne Green, who lives in the Wynwood Family Homes project, put the finishing touches on a letter to Pierre, which she and six members of her executive board had signed. The letter notified Pierre that two weeks hence, at a full advisory council meeting, the board would vote to remove her as president of the Liberty Square Residents Council. The tone of the letter was officious and blunt. “This is a grave matter,” Green stressed in citing three alleged violations of the OTAC bylaws that included prohibitions on fostering rumors and acting without authorization from the board.
On August 2 Green and her board voted to give Pierre the boot. But they didn't stop there. In a subsequent letter, Green informed Pierre that “furthermore, you are prohibited from seeking or holding any office in any resident council under the umbrella of OTAC in Miami-Dade County for three years.”
Witnessing the discussion and board vote were 23 resident council presidents from across the county. Green asked them to lend their names to OTAC's decision to oust Pierre, even though many did not know her. One council president, who requested anonymity, relates, “I was told that the reason they took [Pierre] out was because she was saying things against HOPE VI. [OTAC] said it was her fault the county lost millions of dollars.”
Green never fully explained the alleged infractions, not to Pierre and not to her attorney, JoNel Newman, of the nonprofit Florida Justice Institute. Repeated calls from New Times went unanswered, and during a visit to her office, Green refused comment. Attorney Newman, though, is convinced the accusations stem from Pierre having successfully scuttled the HOPE VI plans for Liberty Square. “We thought the two things were completely related,” Newman says. “I couldn't imagine what [Green] was referring to other than HOPE VI.”