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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

Lida Rodriguez-Taseff
President, Miami chapter
American Civil Liberties Union
Affordable housing. I'm looking at the city budget and out of 134,198 homes, 87,362 are occupied by renters. When you have that many renters in a city where the median household income is $23,483, you're talking about a lot of people living at the edge of poverty. And housing is the largest item they're spending money on. It's pretty obvious that the solution to poverty in Miami is affordable housing. I would start by getting involved in the National Housing Trust Fund. This is an ongoing effort among cities across the country that are seeking to establish a permanent dedicated source of funds for housing. When you create that pot of money for affordable housing, you not only gain stability in housing but you're creating jobs to build the housing. I did some research and I was shocked the City of Miami was not in on this. But you really need a combination of a housing trust fund and inclusionary zoning laws in different parts of the city so affordable housing is not concentrated in one area. I'd buy land in the Roads, in Brickell, the Biscayne corridor and use the zoning laws to make sure you have cross-sectional housing in those areas. I'd also have an income supplement for low-income workers -- the people who wouldn't otherwise qualify for aid because they're working but are still poor. Of course something needs to be done about adequate wages. I'd encourage employers like the school district, Jackson Memorial, BellSouth to create living-wage provisions.

Marvin Dunn
Chairman, Department of Psychology
Florida International University
Government has taken the wrong approach to deal with poverty, especially in the African-American community. The assumption has been that supporting small businesses in the black community will raise employment. But more jobs in small businesses will not work. The reason is that you cannot create a critical mass of jobs in small businesses. If 100 new small businesses opened in Liberty City and Overtown tomorrow, it would not scratch the problem. It won't touch the thousands of kids pouring out of high schools without skills. Part of the problem has been the tendency to eliminate low-level jobs and use automation. But having people replaced by machines just because we can do it will ultimately destroy us. I've been arguing for a reversal of this trend, beginning with the public sector. We should re-establish jobs eliminated by technology, specifically low-skill jobs. For instance, in sanitation: Instead of getting more trucks that replace workers, bring more people back, bring back more drivers. Initially it's going to cost more to use people instead of machines, but as the benefits of having more people employed occur, the costs will even out. Otherwise the number of marginalized people in our society will grow exponentially. My second idea, and we're doing this through FIU, is that we planted nine community gardens in Allapattah, and hired hard-to-employ people, people with drug problems and criminal records, to keep these properties clean. We should be looking at ways to revitalize the inner city using people from neighborhoods with low skills, at jobs they can walk to, and pay them a living wage. Provide a simple job that people can do. One has to be committed to working with a difficult population.

Hodding Carter
President and CEO
John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
I come from Mississippi, a place that relied on low-cost labor for its industries, primarily agriculture. The net result was that we were never positioned to catch hold of any of the developments in the industrial economies. In Miami we are heavily invested in the tourist economy, and much of the labor here is low-skill and poorly educated. Very similar. If I were to pass a wand over the region and say this is one thing that would have the effect of dramatically improving conditions here, it would be that we spend the same amount of money on education in public schools as our leadership spends on its children in private schools. One thing I've observed, the leadership consistently proves by its actions that money does count when it comes to education.

The key to our coming out of this predicament is to provide the tools to our citizens to take part in the modern service and industrial sectors. The rest of it is impossible. You cannot build a functioning economy on the backs of uneducated people.

Athalie Range
Funeral home proprietor
Former Miami City Commissioner
I believe education would stand at the top of the list, but when you're talking about education, you're talking about a person's lifetime. We need to get people out of poverty at a faster pace than to wait for a generation to grow up and out of it. I think industry needs to be brought into areas where there is the most poverty. Manufacturing needs to be brought in so people can learn to become independent. The small stopgaps we have for loaning people money to start businesses? This has not worked over the years because usually those persons who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs seem to get just enough money to become failures. They ask for $100,000 and the county or city may come up with half that. Maybe that sounds good, but in the end, it doesn't work. No follow-through.

Dan Paul
Attorney
Jorden Burt
One does not live by bread alone. If we are going to lift the City of Miami out of poverty, we need first to lift the spirits of the residents. Parks, particularly neighborhood parks, are in deplorable condition. A number of them have fallen into disuse and are no longer parks at all. It's outrageous. Parks and inviting open spaces can play a big part in demonstrating the city cares. Refurbish the neighborhood parks. Provide more open green spaces. Stop shutting the public out of their parks with commercial events. The worst is happening at Bayfront Park right now -- the public shut out for two months with all this Grand Prix racing going on. You'd be surprised how this will lift spirits and help to lead the way out of poverty. The whole idea of parks is to lift the spirit and get people feeling like the city is doing something for them.

Dr. Pedro José Greer, Jr.
Medical director
Camillus Health Concern
A society should not be judged by its buildings, but by how it takes care of its poor. We have to make a long-term plan, and the poor should be part of the planning. If you're going to solve this, you need everybody at the table, meaning those with the financial abilities and those who are affected. Where are the poor people in the planning? We all assume we know what's best for them. I remember some homeless children telling us once what they wanted for Christmas: socks and underwear. Nobody gave them socks and underwear. We all assumed they wanted toys. In another instance, in an area we were working, we decided the greatest needs for the poor in that area were health care and things of that nature. But when we asked the residents, they said safety and cleaning up the neighborhood, things we took for granted. You cannot design a plan alone. The consequence of inappropriate policy is the suffering of human beings.

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