Off with Her Head

Barbara Pierre, turbocharged Liberty City housing advocate, has managed to collect some enemies in high places

Assistant County Attorney Terrence Smith learned of Pierre's case when MDHA director Rene Rodriguez sent him a letter he'd received from Newman, a letter in which she asserted that OTAC's dismissal of Pierre as Liberty Square president was illegal and a violation of her First Amendment rights. “We needed to see if OTAC had authority to do that,” Rodriguez says. He got his answer last week: OTAC's action could not stand, Smith declared; the council had no authority to remove her from office. Rodriguez then informed Yvonne Green and her executive board.

Pierre says she knew OTAC's effort to eliminate her would not hold. “As far as I'm concerned,” she says, “I am the president of Liberty Square. Even if [OTAC] locked me out of their meetings, I would hold meetings outside.”

Although overturned, the attempted coup raises questions about OTAC's independence. Many public-housing activists say the assault on Pierre illustrates their belief that OTAC is unduly influenced by the Miami-Dade Housing Agency. “[OTAC] is a puppet agency,” charges Renita Holmes, a long-time housing activist and former member of the Edison Park Resident Council. “They are being manipulated by the housing agency, and a bunch of people are being misrepresented.”

Pierre agrees with Holmes, but that belief just motivates her to work more diligently from her three-bedroom home on NW 58th Terrace. (Although her house is not physically part of the Liberty Square apartments, it is close enough to allow her to represent its residents.) A corner of her living room is crammed with boxes of documents that overwhelm a rusty filing cabinet. Beneath a coffee table, vinyl bags overflow with transcripts of her resident council meetings. Reams of documents are stored in her attic.

After learning the intricacies of public policy by volunteering at legal-services agencies, Pierre capitalized on her natural aptitude for advocacy. Soon she became skilled at forestalling evictions and speaking up for the rights of tenants. And her work has not been confined to Liberty Square. She also has become a strong voice in the movement to halt the HOPE VI plans at James E. Scott Homes and Carver Homes, two other sprawling public-housing complexes in Liberty City. (Pierre once lived at Carver and served as its resident council president.) Among other things, she helped lead a September 1 sit-in at Mayor Alex Penelas's office to protest HOPE VI implementation at Scott and Carver, where residents face relocation as early as January. Many fear they will be moved to public-housing sites as far away as Naranja and Homestead; others doubt they'll be able to afford the new homes once they're built. (Their concerns are not unjustified. Sherra McLeod, spokeswoman for the MDHA, concedes that many will not return to the rebuilt Scott and Carver projects. For one thing the new homes and townhouses will be much less dense, and therefore will accommodate far fewer residents. “Not everybody will be able to come back,” says McLeod.)

Despite the trouble she has stirred with her involvement in HOPE VI, Pierre has no intention of pulling back -- not from that issue or from other problems that plague public housing in Miami-Dade. And though she prevailed over OTAC this time, she certainly doesn't see it as an end to her troubles with the county's housing bureaucracy. “Something else will come up,” she shrugs. “This always happens. I get so tired of my reputation being attacked, but I know they can't move me.”

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