Off with Her Head

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

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.”

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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