Metropolis, Heal Thyself

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

We'll see. In 1999 the city drew up an ambitious five-year plan to help the city's poor. It promised a sharp rise in homeownership among residents in the most impoverished parts of town, more and better jobs, and other necessities of life that wealthier neighborhoods take for granted. One goal, for instance, was to build 5000 housing units by October 2004 in seven target areas: Allapattah, Model City, Edison/Little River (which includes much of Little Haiti), Wynwood, Little Havana, West Coconut Grove, and Overtown. But the city didn't get even halfway there. In other words the plan, which was mandated by the federal government in exchange for the millions of dollars sent here each year, wasn't much more than an elaborate wish list.

Nearly five years have passed and now it's time for a new plan. Gomez-Rodriguez has brought in consultants to help create a more realistic one. The first public hearings will commence in November, with a finished product expected sometime next year. "Why does affordable housing take so long to be built?" she asks. "That's the question that needs to be answered. It can work, but we've got to understand the problems we've had." Assuming the city really will fix the oversight and efficiency problems that historically have exacerbated Miami's housing crisis, there is another challenge: time.

With the building boom in Southwest Miami-Dade nearly exhausted, developers are flocking back to the city and buying up the relatively cheap land in poor areas. City officials must hurry if they want to preserve and rehabilitate poor neighborhoods; otherwise upscale developers will buy the choicest properties and push out the poor.

Mayor Manny Diaz briskly acknowledged Miami's plague of poverty, but alleviating it will require a long-term commitment
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Mayor Manny Diaz briskly acknowledged Miami's plague of poverty, but alleviating it will require a long-term commitment

In the past twenty years the City of Miami's population rose only seven percent, but the number of people living in poverty increased by more than sixty percent because the middle class was fleeing as poor immigrants flooded in. But now that trend, according to new population figures released earlier this year, is reversing -- at least in those areas of Miami close to the water. "For the first time in years, the population in the city jumped by almost 13,000," observes Dario Moreno, a political science professor and director of Florida International University's Metropolitan Center. "What's happening is almost a classic case of gentrification. It's not so much that the poor people are getting better off but that the poor people are moving out. In Little Havana south of Eighth Street, Hispanic professionals are building little mansions. Houses in the black Grove are going for $300,000. The black neighborhoods are disappearing and moving to Broward."

Gomez-Rodriguez realizes the city must find a way to balance its desire to become a prosperous and urbane Capital of the Americas with its obligation to lift up the lower classes on whose backs all this easy wealth is created. "The boom is happening so fast, we don't want it to hurt our low-income people," she says. "If you go through Miami right now, every other street has construction. We need to create incentives for developers to build mixed-use developments. Our challenge is: How do we leverage what we have to get what we want?"

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