Metropolis, Heal Thyself

One year after Miami announced it would attempt to cure its own poverty, the patient remains in intensive care

If the City of Miami were a recovering alcoholic instead of a midsize metropolis just emerging from decades of hard partying on the public dole, 2002 would mark the end of the first stage of the slow crawl toward sobriety -- denial. For the first time in memory, city officials, notably Mayor Manny Diaz, openly admitted our shameful affliction -- the abject poverty of a large portion of the citizenry. Miami, he was forced to acknowledge, had been judged by the U.S. Census Bureau to be the poorest big city in America.

It wasn't the familiar rhetoric our leaders customarily use to attract federal and state dollars to the bottomless pit of Miami's inner city, where money can be safely diverted, wasted, or distributed to friends and family. This time, Diaz & Co. assured in September 2002, the script would be different. Diaz unveiled a plan to reduce poverty by financially supporting existing antipoverty efforts, maximizing federal and state resources, promoting financial literacy among low-income residents, and giving the poor incentives to open savings accounts.

One year later there's some evidence this wasn't merely political hype designed to polish the mayor's résumé. The city's antipoverty strategy progresses on two fronts. One is the Diaz administration's conviction that retooling the bureaucracy in the image of the private sector will create a new climate of efficiency and accountability. That idea is still working itself out. The second Diaz initiative has been to lend city financial and in-kind support to the various antipoverty efforts of the Human Services Coalition of Miami-Dade County, business microlender ACCIN USA, local churches, and several other organizations. The most evident success so far has been expressed in those partnerships, which have also revealed the startling depth of need in Miami.

Inside city government itself, a great many structural and personnel changes have occurred since Diaz took office in November 2001. Some of this has resulted in bureaucratic deadwood and political appointees being pushed out, or at least transferred to places where they could do less harm. Other moves have simply amounted to creating a new clique loyal to Diaz and his city manager, Joe Arriola. One prominent trend has been to recruit lots of people from the private sector to run departments, or serve as consultants to those who do. A clear focus of this administration is bigger, better, faster development of the city's core, spreading north and west from downtown in a frenzied wave of either speculation or prosperity, depending on your outlook.

The effect all this will have on the city's efforts to fight poverty remains to be seen, but there are a few encouraging signs. At the Community Development Department, director Barbara Gomez-Rodriguez (an assistant director until her promotion in February) is slowly picking up the pieces left by her former boss, Gwen Warren, who had been appointed in 1998 to dig out from under the mess left by her predecessors. For years the city sunk millions of dollars into subsidizing the construction of affordable housing or the rehabilitation of privately owned apartment buildings. But city oversight to ensure the work was completed and properties maintained was spotty at best. "One of the biggest faults the city had was that the codes were not being enforced," Gomez-Rodriguez admits.

Not only that, but developers and building owners were defaulting with impunity on community-development loans. Now the city has beefed up its collections department and is, Gomez-Rodriguez claims, more vigilant about getting on the case: "We used to collect an average of $160,000 a month on loans; this past month, we took in $230,000. We've never been so proactive."

Another overdue innovation: As of October 1, Gomez-Rodriguez says, her department will only pay for services actually rendered, rather than simply allocating a set amount of money for promised services. "Now you have to prove you provided the service or you're not going to get the money," she explains. "Before it was like: 'You didn't perform? I'm going to slap you.' But the money's gone." These are typically community organizations or businesses that feed the elderly, provide child day care, job training, and other needed services. Gomez-Rodriguez says she's spent the last two months meeting with groups that receive grants, trying to convince them that the city really does mean business this time. "It was tough getting people thinking like that," she notes. "They've learned I'm not going to budge. That's a big change." Ironically, just as the city is getting its act together, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has cut its annual community development block grant allocation to Miami from about $12 million to $10 million.

Other positive signs include the city's recent creation of a new waiting list (after three years) of affordable housing available for indigent people with AIDS, which it estimates will shelter 300 to 500 individuals. Next month the city plans to create a new list for several rehabilitated buildings it owns, which will put another couple of dozen low-income families in apartments. With the help of two new assistant directors (both hired from the private sector), Gomez-Rodriguez says she's going to have an infill housing-development program running by the end of the year. "I see a big light," she predicts.

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