By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
By Frank Owen
By Allie Conti
And at county hall, little has changed from the days before the series was published. "House of Lies" also showed how the county had squandered nearly $35 million in federal funds that were supposed to be used for the redevelopment project. But during the time HUD controlled the housing agency in 2008, former Mayor Carlos Alvarez and county commissioners bickered with federal officials over reform. In the end, the county agreed to only turn over management of Section 8 rental assistance to a private company and finish redeveloping a paltry 175 homes in Liberty City — where 850 African-American families had once lived.
That's not all. This past January, commissioners learned that Miami-Dade government must repay $3.6 million in federal grants to HUD. A 2009 audit concluded that county officials couldn't show how grants distributed in 2007 were being used to create jobs, improve housing for low-income and moderate-income people, and provide meals to elderly residents. Commissioners balked at repayment, alleging Miami-Dade taxpayers weren't responsible for the mess.
Yet some commissioners have shown no restraint in handing out property tax money to favored affordable housing developers, including those who donate to their campaigns. In 2004, Miami-Dade voters approved a $2.9 billion general obligation bond program that – among other things – set aside about $137 million for affordable housing projects in each of the 13 commission districts. These funds are administered through the county's capital improvement office and not the housing agency, so affordable housing safeguards put in place after "House of Lies" don't apply.
Three times since 2009, commissioners have doled out grants from the $137 million pot to developers of their choosing without bids or much oversight. The first deal came before the county commission on January 22, 2009, when Commissioner Barbara Jordan wanted to give a $7.5 million loan to Georgia Ayers Development LLC to construct a 72-unit apartment building in Opa-locka. The entity is owned by the Biscayne Housing Group, a local development company specializing in affordable housing. County commissioners voted 12-1 to approve Jordan's proposal. That loan was later changed to a grant. Jordan did not respond to a request for comment.
Seventeen months later, the county commission voted 10-1 to approve Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz's request for a $10 million grant for Consolidated Real Estate Investments, whose owners are developing an apartment for senior citizens in Sweetwater. The same year, Diaz was running for re-election, and Consolidated's principals, Raul and Nidia Rodriguez, each donated the $500 maximum to the commissioner's campaign. The couple gave another $5,000 through companies they own. Diaz did not respond to a list of questions about the grant emailed to his spokeswoman, Olga Vega.
Katy Sorenson, who was a county commissioner representing parts of South Dade from 1995 until last year, was the only elected official to vote against both deals. At the time, Sorenson, who is now president of the Good Government Initiative, informed her colleagues that awarding millions of dollars to developers without competitive bidding would create the appearance that elected officials were doling out patronage.
"The idea of just giving away general obligation money didn't make sense to me," Sorenson says. "I thought it was better to have developers compete for the dollars. That way you avoid any questions about these deals being a political fix, which undermines the public's trust in government."
Commissioners appear to have dismissed Sorenson's concerns. They have continued approving no-bid deals. This past July 19, the county commission voted 11-0 to approve Commissioner Bruno Barreiro's request to award a $3.7 million grant for construction of a 24-unit senior citizens apartment project by the Related Group. The Miami-based real estate conglomerate is owned by Miami Dolphins Chairman Stephen Ross and powerhouse Democratic Party fundraiser Jorge Perez. Related and Ross Perez Holdings each gave $500 to Barreiro in 2010.
Barreiro insists it was no sweetheart deal. "I looked at developers who have done work in my district who can turn projects around fast," he says. "That is why I picked Related."
The Related Group finished the project earlier this year, but only one-third of the building is set aside for affordable housing.
Herald managing editor Rick Hirsch notes that in the years since the public housing investigation, the newspaper has done four other award-winning investigative series, although none about public housing. The struggling daily also lost Debbie Cenziper, the reporter who wrote "House of Lies," to the Washington Post. "We will stay on top of the housing issue going forward," Hirsch insists.
Tuitt, the Trinidadian lady whose house was torn down before she could move in, has found a home in Little Haiti. She avoided City of Miami bureaucracy. "These days it is even harder for poor people to qualify to own their own home," she says. "No one sticks up for us. It's a shame."