A Few Good Ideas

Here's what we'd do if I were in charge

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Yes, Miami is a trash-strewn city of desperate extremes, plagued by inadequate educational opportunities, job prospects, and public services. It's a city fragmented by racism, corruption, and apathy. But Miami is also a city of endless reinvention, a wild border town where anything is possible, even redemption. With that in mind, New Times sought out a variety of thoughtful people and asked them to propose solutions to the seemingly insoluble puzzle that is Miami's poverty: Pretend you are master of the universe for a day, and that neither money nor politics stands in your way. What specifically would you do to help revitalize this city?

image Andrés Duany
Architect and town planner
Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co.
It is different to be poor here than in other cities. It's not such a downer because this is a city of immigrants. Even in its dismal condition, Miami is better than where they came from. You arrive at the airport and with the vendors and the chaos at the taxi stands, you'd think it was a Third World country. But compared to Mexico City or Guatemala, Miami feels like Geneva. It seems clean, organized, well run, uncorrupt. The poverty here is one that has a tremendous "up" energy. But it is incredibly difficult to get permits to build in Miami. We make it virtually impossible. These people come from countries and cultures where there is no building industry. People build their own houses. If we found a way to let them do that, we would end up with something vital and enormously better than the dead-head, cookie-cutter suburbs we have out in Kendall. So why don't we confront the fact that we have a Third World building condition and instead of deriding it, use it? Ride the energy of the place, think creatively. I would suggest creating certain areas of a few acres that are code-free zones. We would have contracts written so that those who build there know they are not being overseen by the city and the city is not liable. All the small contractors would go there and build for themselves and others for a fraction of the cost. It would be a place where lots of young architects would go. It would be the coolest place in Miami. We could get some of the visual excitement you get in Latin American countries. It's about confronting who we are instead of trying to be Greenwich, Connecticut. People could afford housing if they could build it themselves.

image Robert McCabe
President emeritus
Miami-Dade Community College
I would definitely beef up education in kindergarten through third grade. In terms of how children feel about themselves and school, the stage is set for many by the time they get out of first grade. Class size matters! I would reduce class size in K-3 to no more than 22 in a class. And I would throw out the current plan for grading schools and go more in the direction Texas measures performance. Instead of what we do here -- putting money into schools getting high grades -- they help schools that are in trouble. There is a direct connection between education and poverty. Our problem is a high volume of low-income students, students for whom English is a second language, immigrants. Building a workforce that will attract high-level industries with high-paying jobs is an enormous task and needs to be addressed as a community priority. It has not been. We also have a problem with attitudes and values in some of our minority communities. They feel there are no opportunities. We need to get across to them -- African-American males critically -- that this society is interested in them, and there are opportunities.

image Edward Wasserman
Journalist, former editor-in-chief,
Daily Business Review

Everybody wants to attract industry here, but I believe industry is a false hope. The knowledge industries hold a much greater potential. It plays to the strengths of this area as a pan-American center. But instead of becoming a knowledge center, the largest publicly funded university here, Florida International University, decides to create a law school and a football team. We need another law school like a hole in the head. The key is creating alternative centers of knowledge: smart people teaching other smart people, attracting still other smart people who earn good salaries. If you look at Silicon Valley in California and Route 28 in Massachusetts, you see that they were built from universities that then attracted the talent and then the private industry. It makes as much sense for Miami to emerge as the capital of hemispheric thought as anywhere.

image Bruce Nissen
Center for Labor Research and Studies
Florida International University
It's good that everyone is trying to attract high-wage, information-technology industries here, but I have a good deal of skepticism that this will address this problem. Here's what I see needs to be done: There really has to be a concerted effort to improve the public-education system, not only K-12 but also in higher education. We're fiftieth in the nation in public expenditure in higher education -- grossly inadequate. To pay for this there need to be changes in the tax structure. Florida prides itself on being a low-tax state, but that assertion is totally false. The overall tax burden on residents is high, and the reason is the way we structure our tax system. We refuse to collect income tax and instead rely on sales tax. The sales tax is one of the most regressive and unfair taxes there is. The poor end up paying taxes on everything they earned through sales taxes. They spend all their money and don't save anything. Also the sales tax is skewed in such a way that all kinds of businesses benefit from loopholes and exemptions. It's hard to imagine this will change, but it should. With what we could raise in income tax, we could have a decent public-education system. One more thing is a proposed living-wage ordinance, much like the county has. It is before the commission right now. With a living-wage ordinance the city itself must pay all its employees at or above poverty level for a family of four, plus provide health care. It also requires that any contractor with the city, plus their subcontractors, must do the same. If they don't pay health care, they must pay an additional $1.25 an hour. Mayor Diaz had the idea that to ensure increased costs to the city come back to the city, the contractors should be required to find workers who live within the city. If they can't find anyone, they must go to an employment office within the city, and only if the employment office can't find anyone can they hire workers from outside the city.

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