Looks Good on Paper

Miami's planners already have a blueprint for eliminating poverty -- now all they need is a little divine intervention

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Surely by now someone somewhere in Miami's bureaucracy must have drafted a war plan to attack the city's outrageous poverty, right? In fact the Community Development Department (CDD) did just that several years before the 2000 U.S. Census was released and Miami won the dubious honor of being named America's poorest city. It also predates the antipoverty initiatives announced last week by Miami Mayor Manny Diaz.

The "Five-Year Consolidated Plan" (1999-2004) presents an extremely ambitious (some would say unrealistic) strategy for spending an anticipated $171 million in federal grants to provide decent housing, steady jobs, and a safe, healthy living environment for Miami's poorest residents.

"The catalyst for change," it proclaims, consists of 1) a big increase in the numbers of low- and middle-income families who own houses in the city's seven most distressed areas; and 2) a process of economic revitalization that includes promoting new businesses and improving public transportation. "It's a wish list," says CDD acting director Dan Fernandes. "It's a conceptual document."

Before articulating its big dream, the Consolidated Plan offers an extensive, sometimes insightful, and often sobering account of Miami's three-decade descent into the seventh circle of poverty hell. "The City of Miami has been marked by an unprecedented cycle of natural disasters, social dislocation, massive immigration, and political, economic, and institutional instability," the document states. "As in other communities where similar conditions have prevailed, these dislocations have led to increasing levels of poverty, despair, and increased racial and ethnic polarization and turbulence." Written in 1999 by several CDD employees, the plan is riddled with disturbing facts based on 1990 census data and subsequent studies. For example: While the city's population rose only seven percent over the previous twenty years, the number of people living in poverty increased by more than sixty percent.

The average per-capita income in the city's poorest sections (referred to as "community development target areas") was $7435; average household income was $13,191.

In female-headed households with children under five years of age, the poverty rate was 71 percent.

Approximately 40,000 jobs vanished in Miami during the Eighties alone.

The city's housing plan, which included millions of dollars doled out for the rehabilitation of privately owned apartment buildings, "has been a complete failure." Unresponsive absentee landlords who didn't maintain their properties and a lack of code enforcement were among the problems.

Eighty-four percent of all major crimes occur in the target areas. In 1996, for example, 96 percent of all murders, 89 percent of rapes, and 87 percent of aggravated assaults were committed in these neighborhoods.

"With rare exceptions, it appears that communities throughout the City of Miami are experiencing a consistent pattern of community isolation, high unemployment rates for youth and adults, a lack of economic initiative, substandard housing, high crime rates, illiteracy, single-parent households, and a wide range of other poverty indicators," the Consolidated Plan summarized. In other words, Miami administrators knew well before the 2000 census was conducted that their city was likely to move from the nation's fourth-poorest city in 1990 to number one. One big clue was some very disturbing information gathered in 1995 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It suggested that the percentage of Miami residents living in poverty had risen from 31 percent in 1990 to 43 percent by mid-decade. (The data came from a 1999 HUD report, Now Is the Time: Places Left Behind in the New Economy.) Moreover, according to the Consolidated Plan, Miami was probably in the top slot all along: "If illegal immigrants had been factored, the city would undoubtedly have been rated the poorest in the nation."

For nearly three decades the city had been cranking out yearly plans detailing how it intended to spend millions of dollars in annual federal grants. But in 1995 HUD demanded that cities also submit five-year plans if they wanted to continue receiving money for housing, economic revitalization, and social-service programs. Miami's first effort to create a five-year plan ended up in the trash can. Spurred by a HUD audit, which concluded that mismanagement had wasted at least $20 million, Miami administrators sheepishly decided to start over.

Development of the 1999-2004 Consolidated Plan was coordinated by then-CDD director Gwendolyn Warren, who had been hired to clean up the department. It placed a far greater emphasis than its precursor on providing homes that Miami's low-income residents could actually afford to buy. The lofty goal: Build 5000 such houses by October 2004. Administrators mapped out a "home ownership zone" within each of the seven community development target areas, which were rechristened community revitalization districts: Allapattah, Model City, Edison/Little River (which includes much of Little Haiti), Wynwood, Little Havana, west Coconut Grove, and Overtown.

Over the first two years the plan envisioned construction of 1000 new homes in Model City and 500 in Allapattah, areas with the greatest number of dilapidated buildings or vacant lots already owned by the city. To meet the goal of 1000 per year the CDD would have to acquire many more parcels in other neighborhoods and fund private companies and nonprofit organizations interested in building on privately owned lots. The Little Havana strategy, for example, emphasizes privately developed townhouses and high-rise condominiums because developable land is scarce in that area. It also includes a curiously ethnocentric idea: "The housing strategy will also focus on the provision of incentives for middle-income Young Cuban-Americans (YUCAs) to purchase older historic homes and renovate them in order to move to the city. This would afford the city an opportunity to facilitate the influx of middle-class families into the city while generating more retail activities in the neighborhood for the local small-business community."

Unfortunately the Consolidated Plan is at least three years and 3000 homes behind schedule. It wasn't until July 2001 that Miami commissioners voted to make Model City first among the seven revitalization projects. To speed up the process administrators agreed that some type of public-private partnership would be best. "There's a project in St. Louis that's been going on since 1988," groans CDD acting director Dan Fernandes. "We said, 'I don't want to be in a wheelchair looking back at this.'" So the commission voted to create a trust to oversee and acquire land for new homes. Members of the trust, a mix of public officials and private citizens, were appointed by City Manager Carlos Gimenez and met for the first time this past June. As trust president Gimenez named Gwendolyn Warren, former director of the CDD.

To date the trust has acquired eight million dollars in properties. Warren estimates that land-acquisition costs for Model City alone will total $32 million. But she must still clear some budget hurdles. Recently she submitted her first budget for the Model City project. It called for expenditures totaling $10 million, nearly all the available money from HUD. "This is what I think we need to accomplish the task," she told a skeptical trust board of directors in August. "We can't tear up the community and leave it the way it is. We have to move forward."

If things do progress smoothly, the city will open a bid process later this year to hire a private contractor to actually start building, though construction is not expected to begin until sometime next year. "In a perfect world you'd look to do whatever is in your five-year plan," laments Fernandes, acknowledging that the goal of 1000 houses per year has turned out to be a very tall order. "When you're writing this stuff, words are easy," he adds. "It becomes reality-based when you're in the trenches." Still he remains optimistic: "We're evolving. Once we're able to do the first one, then hopefully we've created a model to move on with."

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