Poor Miami: More Good Ideas

According to these folks, there's hope for America's most impoverished city

A few weeks ago I invited readers to submit ideas that might be helpful to the City of Miami, which, being the poorest big city in America, needs all the help it can get. This solicitation arose from our two-part series "We're Number One!" (September 26 and October 3). An examination of the city's championship level of poverty, the series was based on statistics from the 2000 U.S. Census. Some highlights:

100,405 people living in poverty (28.5 percent of the population)

29,319 children living in poverty

Three cheers for FIU's poverty fighters (from left): Ginelle Nelson, Alicia Pichirilo, Marika Krausova, Maureen Muhlena, Bianca Escorcia
Steve Satterwhite
Three cheers for FIU's poverty fighters (from left): Ginelle Nelson, Alicia Pichirilo, Marika Krausova, Maureen Muhlena, Bianca Escorcia

17,683 elderly living in poverty

17,220 people unemployed

Not surprisingly, "We're Number One!" was a gloomy thing to read, but it ended on a hopeful note with an article titled "A Few Good Ideas," in which ten thoughtful individuals offered suggestions for alleviating Miami's poverty. My invitation for ideas from readers was an extension of that. As I'd hoped, many of them were intriguing.

Nancy Lee, Miami: If you teach, as I have, you know that many kids are ill-equipped to prosper because, through no fault of their own, they lack socialization skills that should have been taught at home. And if kids are not socialized, they cannot function in society and move out of poverty by getting jobs. There needs to be training during the first year of high school (before kids drop out) in what many of us take for granted. I've fashioned a one-semester course that would include the following:

Writing skills: How to write a simple business letter and how to fill out a job-application form. Advanced students would learn how to create a résumé.

Role-playing for job interviews: When I have interviewed kids, many would arrive without a pen, which alone could be enough to not get hired. All young people should be properly schooled in interview techniques.

Attire: Teach teenagers what to wear to an interview and what to wear to keep a job. Unfortunately image is very important, and a poor image will not get the job. I would bring students to thrift shops to get one outfit for an interview, or I would require the schools to send every student away with one outfit suitable for a job interview.

Manners and hygiene: My course would teach the importance of not spitting in public. Common courtesy, such as saying "thank you" and "please," would be addressed. I would also include basic instructions on hygiene -- teeth, hair, body cleanliness.

Metamessage: This is proper body language for getting a job -- not slouching, not picking at your face, not scratching, and so on. I would teach smiling, eye contact, folded hands (so they don't get into trouble), and nodding at the right time.

Finances: My course would make sure students know how to open a bank account and write a check, which would get rid of all of those rip-off check-cashing joints. Too many people are afraid of banks because they don't know how to use them and are too embarrassed to admit it. I would also offer training on savings and loans so eventually the pawn shops would go out of business too.

Many students leave school without this type of basic knowledge. Without proper preparation, they won't get a job even if they are qualified. Repeated failure will lead them to stop trying. I don't want them to fail when they're so close to success.

Tony Saiz, Miami: Miami is the home of the cruise industry. Those ships employ thousands of crew members, but how many do you suppose are Miami residents? Less than a handful. Why? Because it's easier to hire and train people from overseas (say, the Philippines) than to hire locally. Don't blame the cruise lines. They're making choices that benefit their stockholders. Instead let's figure out what needs to be done to have these employment opportunities made available to our fellow citizens. We could create education programs to train people in shipboard duties. We could obtain an exemption from or modification of federal minimum-wage requirements so local people are cost-competitive compared to foreign nationals. Our goal should be 100 percent employment of locals by local businesses.

Dennis E. Jordan, Hialeah: The City of Miami should concentrate on those issues better left to local control -- police, housing, playgrounds -- and give up to Miami-Dade County those that take kindly to regional control, such as garbage collection and fire protection. This is not without precedent. In the past the city gave up the airport, the library system, the bus system, water and sewer, and Jackson Memorial Hospital, to name a few.

Without those responsibilities the city would find wiggle room for spending on supplemental programs for the poor and a lower property-tax rate that would attract businesses.

Miguel A. Fernandez, Miami: I recently returned to South Florida after living in North Carolina for five years. During that time I worked for the Division of Medical Assistance (the state Medicaid office), where I learned that state and county governments can request waivers from federal regulations governing mandatory minimums, whether they be medical services or minimum wages.

In Miami I would suggest developing a hybrid of Roosevelt's New Deal that would involve a waiver of minimum-wage laws. Included would be a voluntary skills-training program for those poor receiving government assistance. Welfare recipients would work to develop new skills taught by craftspeople in exchange for the federal assistance they are already receiving. These volunteers would also be guaranteed first consideration for permanent jobs that become available within county and state agencies requiring the skills they've learned.

This would please Republicans who like the idea of a successful program that removes minimum wages. For Democrats it would be a "work first" program that's strictly voluntary and promotes the vision and opportunity inherent in helping the underprivileged.

Andy Parrish, Coral Gables: Federally funded Section 8 housing programs offer vouchers to low-income families so they can rent privately owned apartments or single-family homes. Residents pay approximately 30 percent of their income for rent and HUD pays the rest. According to HUD, there are 15,000 such subsidized rental housing units in Miami-Dade County. Locally the vouchers cost taxpayers more than $100 million per year. But they create zero equity for the people who receive them. Maybe we can do better.

In west Coconut Grove there are three-bedroom, two-bath houses in the Section 8 program that rent for $1000 per month and more. This means the taxpayer-funded subsidy for such a house is at least $700 per month. By comparison Wind & Rain, a private, for-profit homebuilder of which I am president, has built more than a dozen three-bedroom, two-bath houses for ownership by low- to moderate-income families. The total monthly cost to the owners (including principal, interest, taxes, and insurance) comes to about $750 per month.

What makes this possible is a low-interest (zero percent to three percent) "soft second" mortgage administered by local government or the local housing authority, usually with state or federal funding. This amounts to $40,000 of the $100,000 purchase price of the house, with the balance coming in the form of a modest $3000 down payment and a market-rate first mortgage of $57,000. (There are programs already in place to pay closing costs.) The cost to taxpayers of providing the subsidy on a three-percent soft-second mortgage of $40,000 is approximately $75 per month, albeit for 30 years.

Those who advocate for Section 8 rental vouchers would argue: "Yes, the cost of vouchers is $700 per month instead of $75, but many families can't afford to pay the $750 per month it would cost to become homeowners. Besides, Section 8 is a very popular program politically, both with the landlords who own the houses and the tenants living in them who might otherwise be in an even less desirable apartment complex."

This is a plausible argument on the surface, but let's follow the money. In the Section 8 voucher program the public money ($700 per month or more) goes to the landlord. The family remains a tenant, maybe forever. With a soft-second mortgage, the low-income family buying the house receives the benefit of the taxpayers' largess ($75 per month), which propels them into the middle class forever.

Now let's see what happens if we mustered the political will to change at least a portion of the Section 8 program. What if all the taxpayers' $700 per month in Section 8 rent subsidy was used to fund a larger mortgage with a lower interest rate? Call it a "soft first." A one-percent soft-first mortgage of $97,000 would result in a taxpayer cost of $270 per month, with the family paying around $312 per month to fully amortize the loan over 30 years. If taxpayers were also to pick up the $240 per month in real-estate taxes and insurance, they would still be saving $190 per month over the $700 rental subsidy. Suddenly you have a family making only $12,500 per year able to buy a house that would be their own and which would give them a stake in society.

Imagine a government program that is cheaper and so much better than the one it replaces. Imagine what a better and wealthier Miami this could be.

Anne Manning, Miami: Habitat for Humanity of Greater Miami, which I serve as executive director, offers a solution to Miami's lack of affordable housing. Since 1997 Miami Habitat has completed 50 homes in the City of Miami. All are home-ownership units and all were built on vacant lots in Overtown and Little Haiti. Like the 400 homes we've built elsewhere in Miami-Dade County, these were built in partnership with poor families and sold according to the biblical principles that profit is not to be made on the backs of the poor and no interest should be charged when lending money to the poor. Homes are built primarily with the labor of partner families and volunteers. Funds come from house payments of completed units and from contributions from concerned individuals, churches, civic organizations, schools, and businesses.

Below is a list of benefits realized by the families purchasing homes:

Decent, affordable housing. The average monthly mortgage payment of $400 is less than what poor families typically pay in rent.

The cycle of poverty is broken as a low-income family is given the opportunity to build equity that will be passed down from generation to generation.

Home ownership gives families dignity, self-respect, and opportunity. Children of homeowners are less likely to drop out of school, less likely to be arrested, and less likely to give birth to children as teenagers.

The community also benefits:

Poor inner-city communities are stabilized and revitalized through the replacement and restoration of the housing stock.

Members of our diverse community work alongside each other and gain an appreciation for people from other backgrounds. Cynicism and fear abate when volunteers work together and see the results of their labors.

Overburdened public services are relieved of the need to police and maintain vacant lots and abandoned structures.

Private homes generate taxes and increase the tax base countywide.

Habitat for Humanity is a Christian organization that welcomes the participation of all individuals, groups, and organizations who share our concern and compassion for the poor.

In addition to the fifty houses already completed, we have fourteen currently under construction in Overtown and Little Haiti, and we plan to start another eleven Overtown homes in February.

George Childs, Miami: Miami's administrators are busy building single-family homes on empty lots owned by the city. The theory is that a sense of ownership among the residents will lead to pride and therefore to better neighborhoods. We can point to similar neighborhoods already established: Carol City, Richmond Heights, Opa-locka. If that is what the city wants -- well, those are not terribly bad. One thing is certain, though: Middle- and lower-income single-family areas drain rather than contribute to municipal coffers.

If the city nevertheless wants to subsidize such a scheme, again be warned: Most people living there will not earn much, will work only intermittently, or will have zero job security. Surprisingly expensive maintenance in such settings also has a tremendous negative impact. In addition, single-family areas undermine social cohesiveness; witness the puzzle of suburban neighbors not knowing one another.

Contrast the above with what should really be pursued: garden-style condominiums. Same sense of ownership, a lower municipal bill per unit, and minimum impact to the community should a family's finances go south. If designed correctly, at least the lower units will have a piece of ground, the absence of side yards will cut down on leftover spaces, and social interaction will take place in building lobbies.

Some condominium developments could feature walk-to shops that would stabilize the finances of the building and add to foot traffic on sidewalks. Informal outdoor gathering areas should be encouraged rather than discouraged, and designers should wait to see where these form before putting in benches. Setbacks, if any, should be minimal. The units should be slightly elevated, and residents should upon entering walk down a hall the length of the adjoining kitchen so that the sink faces the sidewalk, which would mean domineering eyes on the street from above.

I could go on about designing stable and crime-adverse developments for the prosperity of the city, but it boils down to two conclusions. The first is the pressing need for the City of Miami to adopt design guidelines in order that admirable goals can be achieved routinely. (Amazingly Miami is among the largest cities in the nation without them.)

Also, despite best efforts, the municipal-administration model does not lend itself to the development of such complex multiuse structures. The larger of the city's vacant parcels should be planned as outlined above, but then private enterprise should be brought in to crunch the numbers.

Frances Torres, Miami: Forty percent of the surface area within Miami city limits pays no taxes -- probably the highest percentage in the nation. The rest of Miami-Dade County is not accepting its share of governmental institutions [that do not pay taxes]. Also has the city checked to be certain that all those tax-exempt marginal churches, social organizations, and so forth are still functioning?

David Casanova, Coconut Grove: There is perhaps one billion dollars' worth of recoverable land on or near our shorelines along Biscayne Bay. Once that land is developed (with environmental safeguards), it could be a common resource that generates $50,000,000 annually in property taxes.

Greg Bush, Miami: The key is to focus our attention in a sustained manner and show that thousands of people really care about poverty in Miami. I suggest initiating a project that examines wealth and poverty in modern Miami. It would be a broad effort over six months or a year, perhaps timed with the school year so courses could be taught on the subject as well. I would start with a televised conference on poverty and wealth that includes public officials, major and minor CEOs, heads of nonprofit organizations, students, school and university officials, neighborhood groups, church leaders, and others.

I'd like to see the conference lead to a Florida Studies Center created in downtown Miami that would be truly interdisciplinary and work among schools at all levels. Addressing the question of poverty would be its first charge. Public meetings would be regularly featured on public television as well as commercial stations.

We need to hear the stories of people who are out of work through oral-history interviews. We should facilitate kids taking photographs that relate their own perceptions of the problems of poverty. We should bring media moguls together to concentrate newspaper and television attention on the issue over a prolonged period. This would be a start.

I. Hagen, Miami: Here are my solutions:

Improve public transportation with more bus routes and by expanding Metrorail all the way south and all the way north into Broward so people can get to work. They have that in Europe, South America, and Central America. Why not here?

We have all these stinking-rich millionaires living here who pay their employees six dollars an hour. So anyone living in a house worth more than $500,000 should pay a special tax, money from which would be used to provide cheap or free child care to working mothers.

Come up with low-interest government loans for emergencies. For example, to fix your car if you need a new transmission so you can get to work. Or money to move into a new apartment for deposits, moving trucks, and connection fees. This could be repaid at $100 per month.

Turn that crummy crackhead Bicentennial Park in downtown Miami into an open-air movie theater and fun park for families with free parking, grills, basketball courts -- a place to hang out for people and their children. And have street parties there and meetings that everyone could attend and make suggestions on how to improve our city.


Another response to "We're Number One!" came from Maureen Muhlena, a senior at Florida International University. Instead of offering a specific solution, she and a group of fellow students offered themselves as volunteers. As part of FIU's Student Honors Mentor Program, Muhlena and a dozen others, with assistance from a faculty advisor, formed a group they called "We the People." They were volunteers in search of a project until Muhlena marched into a meeting with a copy of "We're Number One!"

"I brought in New Times and said, 'Look! We're the number-one poorest city in America. Let's do something about it.' So we decided to do a poverty-awareness week."

After distributing flyers and stirring up interest at the school's University Park campus, their project hit full stride Monday and Tuesday, November 25 and 26. In the Graham student center Muhlena and her cohorts set up a display at the "pit," a kind of stage area strategically located along a busy hallway. Two easels held grim statistics about Miami's poverty; on a third photographs provided graphic representations. A table manned by student volunteers was loaded with material: information about local organizations involved in fighting poverty, pamphlets explaining "living wage" laws, even a specific and helpful list: "Ten Things You Can Do to Make a Difference."

Not content to passively await curious students, Muhlena and crew drew crowds by performing cheers in the spirit of "We're Number One!" complete with flash cards and routines: "Give me a P. Give me an O. Give me a V...." It worked. "When we started cheering, that's when most people came over to the table," Muhlena recounts. "A lot of people responded."

During a meeting last week to assess their effectiveness, the students decided they had been successful in spreading the word about Miami's ignominious claim to fame. It was so effective, in fact, they're going to do it again in January, at the start of the new semester. Muhlena will spearhead that effort too. "In the beginning of poverty-awareness week, we issued a mission statement: We wanted to raise awareness on the FIU campus, and we wanted to let people know ways to help. Did we achieve that? Yes, we felt we did. Students reacted: 'Wow! We're the poorest? We're really glad to see you doing something about this.'"

The mayor of America's poorest big city, Manny Diaz, issued his own mission statement in late September. While stopping short of declaring all-out war on Miami's poverty, Diaz did announce four promising initiatives:

A "financial literacy" campaign to inform the city's poorest about federal tax rebates and other benefits.

Incentives for poor families to save money by adding matching funds to their savings accounts. (One million dollars in public money has been earmarked for this, with more anticipated from private sources.)

A microlending program for small-business entrepreneurs.

A task force on poverty that is supposed to become a permanent feature of city government.

According to Javier Fernandez, policy advisor to Mayor Diaz, good progress has been made thus far with the financial-literacy campaign, fair progress has been made with the savings and microlending programs, but virtually nothing yet has been done regarding formation of the task force. Which is unfortunate as the task force would seem to be the one component open to ordinary citizens who want to volunteer their time. If you're among those people, Fernandez invites you to call him at 305-250-5313. Of course, if the mayor really wanted to jump-start that task force, he'd pick up the phone and call the twelve people I included here. They've already demonstrated their willingness to work and their compassion for Miami's poor.

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