Our Lady of the Projects

Octavia Anderson and the last days of the James E. Scott Homes

But wherever HOPE VI has gone, people it was meant to help have tended to greet its massive relocations and rebuilding with suspicion and fear. A common riff -- sounded from Chicago to Tampa to Liberty City when HOPE VI arrives -- is that the realagenda behind the visionary propaganda is to move poor blacks out of the inner city. That mission accomplished, suburban whites can rediscover urban life without the real or imagined threat of thugs. And there may be truth in the paranoia. Certainly to many whites, reducing the number of blacks in a landscape automatically means higher property values and the beginning of "revitalization" (witness the Memorial Day hip-hop panic on South Beach, where the reverse trend was feared.) "Urban removal" is a phrase some radicals throw around to describe HOPE VI.


Octavia didn't know much about HOPE VI in September 1999, when HUD awarded the Miami-Dade Housing Agency its grant. What she'd heard, though, sounded good: "They are going to build new houses for us!" she understood. Who wouldn't be excited?

Rene Rodriguez, executive director of the Miami-Dade Housing Agency, is baffled: If breaking the chains of poverty is a good thing, why are all these people complaining?
Rene Rodriguez, executive director of the Miami-Dade Housing Agency, is baffled: If breaking the chains of poverty is a good thing, why are all these people complaining?
Rene Rodriguez, executive director of the Miami-Dade Housing Agency, is baffled: If breaking the chains of poverty is a good thing, why are all these people complaining?
Rene Rodriguez, executive director of the Miami-Dade Housing Agency, is baffled: If breaking the chains of poverty is a good thing, why are all these people complaining?

But the more Octavia learned about the program, the more she couldn't get one question out of her mind: "What is going to happen to us [the hard-core project dwellers, whom the social engineers disdained]?" It's a question that hasn't been answered in a satisfactory way for two years.

Octavia was too busy to attend more than a handful of meetings when the Housing Agency came to Scott and Carver in the fall of 1999 to explain the grandiose goals of HOPE VI.

As a harried mom, her morning kicks into gear at 5:30 a.m., when her kids get up and start leaving the house in waves for school. After the second wave goes to the bus stop at 8:00, she has a little breather before getting ready for work herself. In addition to her full-time job at Miami-Dade Community College, Octavia has been working toward a degree in criminal justice. At night, after she finally pulls up in front of her apartment in her battered 1991 Crown Victoria at around 8:00, she still has homework to check before seeing the family to bed. Phillip Hardemon, who has been her boyfriend for the past sixteen years and who fathered four of her six kids, helps out. As does her eighteen-year-old daughter, Shawntai. Second-guessing HOPE VI was way down on her list of daily priorities.

Then one day (fall of '99) she bumped into Billy Hardemon, a man she considers her brother-in-law, on one of his many forays into Scott and Carver. Hardemon had been piloting his silver Jaguar through the project to mobilize residents against HOPE VI. "This is going to affect y'all; you better find out about it," Hardemon remembers cautioning Octavia. Hardemon -- trim, dapper, smart, quick-witted, and with a gift for speechifying -- had been asked to work as a volunteer consultant for residents of Carver Homes by its resident-council president Lottie Hines. And Hardemon knows how to work the pulleys and knobs of local politics. He was chief aide for a former county commissioner, James Burke, and had run for the county commission himself. He also was arrested twice, once in 1996 for campaign-contribution irregularities and six months later on federal bribery charges for trying to shake a $300,000 bribe out of a company bidding on a county bond deal. Burke himself was sentenced to federal prison on the charges. Hardemon was acquitted, although he did plead guilty to sixteen misdemeanor counts of campaign fraud. Hardemon and his more rough-and-tumble brother, Roy, surfaced in Scott and Carver shortly after the $35 million HOPE VI grant was awarded to MDHA by HUD in 1999. Billy and Roy both say they are interested in HOPE VI because they grew up in Scott with their ten brothers and sisters. But given Billy's history, some whisper that his main attraction is the smell of that $35 million.... Still, while MDHA touted HOPE VI as a cure-all for public housing, Hardemon at least brought some acute homie perspective to the consideration of the issues.

Billy mentioned the project to Octavia again when both were at Hardemon's mother's house for the family's annual Thanksgiving dinner in November 1999. At the time the resident council of Scott Homes was in disarray, hampered from effectively working on HOPE VI by infighting among board members and OTAC over miniscule points in the organization's bylaws. Just before Thanksgiving, OTAC dissolved the board and called for a new election. So in order to push the issues he saw as important with HOPE VI, Hardemon needed an insider on the board.

When he saw Octavia sitting on his mom's sofa, he had a flash. Octavia should run for the presidency of the Scott Homes Resident Association during the December elections! He began a campaign right there to convince her. Hearing what the subject was, Roy joined in, urging Octavia to run. At first she had no interest. She hated all the bickering she'd seen at Scott. But after a couple of neighbors encouraged her, Octavia decided to try. "She was dragged into it kicking and screaming," Billy Hardemon laughs.

Octavia ran on a platform of making HOPE VI work for current residents. She wanted to make sure residents truly understood their choices, like whether to accept a rental voucher, or to move into other public housing, and she wanted the housing agency to guarantee jobs for residents. Her slate was elected in December 1999.

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