Our Lady of the Projects
Please look to the left of this text. Thank you. You are very good at following directions. That woman with the dead-ahead gaze, the determined jaw, and the mahogany skin is Octavia Anderson. She is 33 years old. She is the mother of six children. She lives in the James E. Scott Homes public-housing project in Liberty City. She is the president of the James E. Scott Homes Resident Association. And some people would say she's a big pain in the ass.
Octavia, however, prefers the term "hardheaded."
It's after 8:00 on a warm night in late February. The community center is locked. The meeting is over. It's time everyone left. Time to get the children ready for bed. Time to get ready yourself. Yet five women remain plaited together around Octavia in the parking lot, their voices braiding into a knot of anger.
"We need to tell Mr. Rodriguez it not proper to send in a kangaroo court!" one of them declares. "The people are not going to stand for it. The people are not going to stand for it." "Sending the police in here. They got no respect," another grumbles.
Miami Heat vs. Atlanta Hawks
TicketsSun., Oct. 1, 6:00pm
UberTailGate: Hard Rock Stadium Dolphins v Titans
TicketsSun., Oct. 8, 1:00pm
Miami Dolphins vs. Tennessee Titans
TicketsSun., Oct. 8, 1:00pm
Miami Heat vs. Charlotte Hornets
TicketsMon., Oct. 9, 7:30pm
Miami Heat vs. Washington Wizards
TicketsWed., Oct. 11, 7:30pm
The women are awash in the chaos of an angry meeting that ended twenty minutes ago. The assembly had been called by Yvonne Green, president of the Overall Tenant Advisory Council (OTAC). That group is the mother of all resident-advocacy organizations in Miami-Dade, made up of the elected members of 45 housing projects. The purpose of the meeting? To strip Octavia of her presidency. Flyers had been dropped around Scott Homes the day before. No subject given. Ever since Octavia wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development criticizing the Miami-Dade Housing Agency two weeks before, she sensed this coming. She thinks Green plans to kick her out of office because Green has a reputation for doing that with presidents who oppose OTAC's positions. Octavia believes Miami-Dade Housing Agency executive director Rene Rodriguez is behind it. She thinks he wants her silenced because she's screwing up American social engineering, which, in the end, is what the battle over the James E. Scott Homes is about ... but she isn't going to let them take her presidency without a fight.
Twenty minutes earlier Octavia blew into the center straight from her job at Miami-Dade Community College, still wearing the bright blue work tunic she uses at her copy-services position. She flung the door to the center open. Angry Scott residents jammed the room. Four police officers stood guard against the wall, summoned by Green in case things got out of hand. Green and three members of Octavia's resident council sat at a conference table. Before Octavia had a chance to get her bearings, Green called the board for a vote to oust her. "What are the charges?" Octavia shouted. "I demand to know what the charges are!"
Green called for the vote again. Octavia proclaimed that Green couldn't remove her unless the residents voted her out through a recall election. It didn't matter. Three of the five resident-council members who had been elected to the board with Octavia now cast their ballots to expel her. The audience yelled for an explanation. "This is about our president, not about OTAC," one resident hollered. "There won't be any questions," Green barked. "This meeting is over!"
And with that, she rose from her chair, all six feet and 200 pounds of her, and lumbered out the door. Then the police efficiently hustled everyone out of the building.
"Ms. Green just came in here and did her magic," complains one of the women around Octavia in the parking lot. Octavia didn't say anything. She just stood there, eyes blazing, coiled up like a gymnast. Finally, she broke her silence. She wanted the women to know her fight had just begun. She sounded deep and resonant, the low notes caught in her throat in a hard vibrato. "I don't care what I heard," she finally told them. "I'm still president."
You see the stuff people are made of when their world is overturned. And the world of the James E. Scott Homes at 73rd Street and NW 22nd Avenue is about to go kerflooey. There will be about $125 million spent to make this happen. After 47 years of housing Miami's poor, the federal government has given up on Scott, and its neighbor Carver Homes. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) furnished Miami-Dade Housing Agency (its local liaison) with $35 million to do away with it. Both projects will be flattened, demolished, torn down, kaput. The 850 families who live there now will have to move out. Some residents are already packed. A mass exodus of more than 3000 African-Americans should begin in July and continue over the next four years, until all are gone. Some of the 850 families will move to other public-housing projects in Miami-Dade. But most will get rental vouchers and settle into private homes and apartments. And about 259 families -- screened, culled, and approved by the housing agency -- will move out temporarily and then return to Scott and Carver when they have been completely rebuilt. HUD money isn't paying for Miami-Dade Housing Agency (MDHA) to rebuild a public-housing complex. They want transmogrification.
When a new community takes shape on these 50 acres, it will be nothing like the old one. The post-war institutional, dirty yellow barracks-like buildings of Scott Homes, with their flat lines parallel to the street, narrow concrete porches, rats, roaches, pigeons roosting in the crawl spaces, lead paint, primal funk, leaky plumbing ... will be history.
MDHA won a HUD grant because they promised to build a new development -- one of tidy, attractive homes and townhouses shaded by tall, leafy trees and ringed with sidewalks. The housing agency envisions a neighborhood populated not with drug dealers and welfare queens but by SUV-driving Moms and Dads who work full time, fire up the Weber grill on weekends, and have ten-year goal-achievement plans for themselves and their lovely kids. Here the working poor and the middle class will live in harmony, attracted to the quaint ambiance and affordable prices. Here public-housing residents who cleaved to middle-class values through the crack epidemics, gang banging, drive-by shootings, and hoo-ra that plagued public housing in the past will finally get their just rewards -- a coveted spot in a safe, attractive, secure community.
The money and vision steering this revolution is HOPE VI, or Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere. A massive federal program created by Congress in 1992, the goal of HOPE VI (called VI to distinguish it from other HOPE housing initiatives) is to convert the inner city into a place where Cosby, Oprah, and Andy Taylor of Mayberry would feel at home. The transformation begins with what Washington and much of our society has come to view as a cesspool at the heart of these communities -- public housing.
"These crime-infested monuments to a failed policy are killing the neighborhoods around them," Vice President Al Gore said in a press release in 1996. "By tearing them down and replacing them with apartments and town homes, we lay the foundations for vibrant neighborhoods that will bring our inner cities back to life."
The U.S. Congress appointed the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing to investigate the conditions of the nation's public housing in 1989. The commission reported back in 1992 that 86,000 public-housing units out of 1.2 million were so decrepit no one could live in them. The report listed a number of conditions that created a national public-housing crisis -- increasing poverty, inadequate and fragmented social services, and the location of projects in neighborhoods often as blighted as the sites themselves. The commission estimated it would take $7.8 billion to make the worst projects in the United States livable. But the commission stressed in its report that fixing up the physical structures wasn't enough, that "traditional approaches to revitalizing seriously distressed public housing ... without addressing the human condition of the residents" was inadequate.
In response Congress created in 1993 the program that later became HOPE VI. HOPE VI adopted a "holistic approach." It combined social services, health programs, and other help for residents; it provided the dollars to rehabilitate public-housing stock.
Since 1993 HUD has spent more than four billion dollars on the program. HOPE VI, with projects throughout the U.S. -- in Seattle, Baltimore, Chicago, Nashville, San Antonio, Newark, Philadelphia, Tampa, Jacksonville, and Atlanta -- proved to be the most sweeping public-housing initiative since the concept was created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1937. As such it is the latest Big Fix in a long line hatched in Washington to land on the poor.
Although HOPE VI began as a program to help poor folks and make their lives better, critics say the focus has shifted away from them toward urban revitalization. As HOPE VI projects were started around the country, the push became to move residents out of public housing, demolish the projects, and replace them with new units that would attract higher-income residents. Instead of rebuilding public housing, HOPE VI aimed at building mixed-income planned neighborhoods where those tenants who were ready would get help to move out of poverty and into the middle class, but those who weren't, would just get moved. It was less the inspiration of an individual or small group than a cumulative wave of social-engineering think-tank buzz, and increasing exasperation with the violent culture of public housing. As the program evolved between 1992 and 1996, it dovetailed with new initiatives to reform welfare, get public-housing residents into the job market, and take back control of public housing through get-tough policies like "One Strike, You're Out."
Old-style public-housing projects such as Scott, Carver, and Liberty Square in Liberty City segregated the poor from the rest of society and concentrated them together in a place where poor conditions created a hothouse of desperation. Even the architecture of the projects was seen as contributing to a climate of despair, by packing the poor into barracks and grim high-rises, warehouses of woe. Borrowing a page from the New Urbanism architectural movement -- which aims for development with a small-town feel -- HUD envisioned HOPE VI as people-friendly environments. Reducing the population on the redeveloped site would give more of a neighborhood feeling and leave space for parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, and golf courses. HOPE VI would aim for a community dominated by middle-class values, dragging the underclass into Martha Stewart-land.
But wherever HOPE VI has gone, people it was meant to help have tended to greet its massive relocations and rebuilding with suspicion and fear. A common riff -- sounded from Chicago to Tampa to Liberty City when HOPE VI arrives -- is that the real agenda behind the visionary propaganda is to move poor blacks out of the inner city. That mission accomplished, suburban whites can rediscover urban life without the real or imagined threat of thugs. And there may be truth in the paranoia. Certainly to many whites, reducing the number of blacks in a landscape automatically means higher property values and the beginning of "revitalization" (witness the Memorial Day hip-hop panic on South Beach, where the reverse trend was feared.) "Urban removal" is a phrase some radicals throw around to describe HOPE VI.
Octavia didn't know much about HOPE VI in September 1999, when HUD awarded the Miami-Dade Housing Agency its grant. What she'd heard, though, sounded good: "They are going to build new houses for us!" she understood. Who wouldn't be excited?
But the more Octavia learned about the program, the more she couldn't get one question out of her mind: "What is going to happen to us [the hard-core project dwellers, whom the social engineers disdained]?" It's a question that hasn't been answered in a satisfactory way for two years.
Octavia was too busy to attend more than a handful of meetings when the Housing Agency came to Scott and Carver in the fall of 1999 to explain the grandiose goals of HOPE VI.
As a harried mom, her morning kicks into gear at 5:30 a.m., when her kids get up and start leaving the house in waves for school. After the second wave goes to the bus stop at 8:00, she has a little breather before getting ready for work herself. In addition to her full-time job at Miami-Dade Community College, Octavia has been working toward a degree in criminal justice. At night, after she finally pulls up in front of her apartment in her battered 1991 Crown Victoria at around 8:00, she still has homework to check before seeing the family to bed. Phillip Hardemon, who has been her boyfriend for the past sixteen years and who fathered four of her six kids, helps out. As does her eighteen-year-old daughter, Shawntai. Second-guessing HOPE VI was way down on her list of daily priorities.
Then one day (fall of '99) she bumped into Billy Hardemon, a man she considers her brother-in-law, on one of his many forays into Scott and Carver. Hardemon had been piloting his silver Jaguar through the project to mobilize residents against HOPE VI. "This is going to affect y'all; you better find out about it," Hardemon remembers cautioning Octavia. Hardemon -- trim, dapper, smart, quick-witted, and with a gift for speechifying -- had been asked to work as a volunteer consultant for residents of Carver Homes by its resident-council president Lottie Hines. And Hardemon knows how to work the pulleys and knobs of local politics. He was chief aide for a former county commissioner, James Burke, and had run for the county commission himself. He also was arrested twice, once in 1996 for campaign-contribution irregularities and six months later on federal bribery charges for trying to shake a $300,000 bribe out of a company bidding on a county bond deal. Burke himself was sentenced to federal prison on the charges. Hardemon was acquitted, although he did plead guilty to sixteen misdemeanor counts of campaign fraud. Hardemon and his more rough-and-tumble brother, Roy, surfaced in Scott and Carver shortly after the $35 million HOPE VI grant was awarded to MDHA by HUD in 1999. Billy and Roy both say they are interested in HOPE VI because they grew up in Scott with their ten brothers and sisters. But given Billy's history, some whisper that his main attraction is the smell of that $35 million.... Still, while MDHA touted HOPE VI as a cure-all for public housing, Hardemon at least brought some acute homie perspective to the consideration of the issues.
Billy mentioned the project to Octavia again when both were at Hardemon's mother's house for the family's annual Thanksgiving dinner in November 1999. At the time the resident council of Scott Homes was in disarray, hampered from effectively working on HOPE VI by infighting among board members and OTAC over miniscule points in the organization's bylaws. Just before Thanksgiving, OTAC dissolved the board and called for a new election. So in order to push the issues he saw as important with HOPE VI, Hardemon needed an insider on the board.
When he saw Octavia sitting on his mom's sofa, he had a flash. Octavia should run for the presidency of the Scott Homes Resident Association during the December elections! He began a campaign right there to convince her. Hearing what the subject was, Roy joined in, urging Octavia to run. At first she had no interest. She hated all the bickering she'd seen at Scott. But after a couple of neighbors encouraged her, Octavia decided to try. "She was dragged into it kicking and screaming," Billy Hardemon laughs.
Octavia ran on a platform of making HOPE VI work for current residents. She wanted to make sure residents truly understood their choices, like whether to accept a rental voucher, or to move into other public housing, and she wanted the housing agency to guarantee jobs for residents. Her slate was elected in December 1999.
If Hardemon thought he had a puppet in Octavia, she says he has since found out differently. Hoping to lure county Commissioner Dorrin Rolle to oppose HOPE VI, for example, Hardemon asked Octavia to gather up some Scott residents to praise the commissioner at a community meeting. No matter what the political strategy, Octavia wasn't comfortable with the idea. "[Rolle] wasn't really working with us," Octavia says now. "So I told Billy I couldn't do that."
Shortly after the election, Octavia began holding weekly meetings for residents to learn about the new program. She attended MDHA meetings, too, participating in various discussions. Octavia asked the housing agency to specify how the rent-to-own program in the redeveloped community would work, so that residents who left Scott during reconstruction would know how to qualify. She also wanted MDHA to consider adding more units to the redeveloped site so more people could return. And she was worried about whether residents who were leaving Scott and Carver permanently could be guaranteed services mandated for them by HUD and HOPE VI. But instead of addressing her concerns, Octavia says, after three meetings on relocation, MDHA announced that HUD had already approved their plan, and that it was "too late for revision." "It was like they tricked us," she says.
That's when she began to move closer to Hardemon.
Octavia joined a group of other Scott and Carver residents in June 2000 on a three-day bus trip to get a firsthand look at Durkeeville, a completed HOPE VI community in Jacksonville. The housing agency hoped the trip would allay residents' fears by showing that community values were being honored and maintained.
It seemed to work. In a glowing report in MDHA's July/August newsletter, several residents were quoted remarking on the positive things they'd seen in Durkeeville -- jobs, a community center, stores, a daycare, a sense of togetherness. Octavia's comments were a little more circumspect. "It was an excellent trip," she is quoted as saying. "I got a better feel of what HOPE VI is about, and I can relay the potential impact that it will have for the residents of Scott Homes." But in Jacksonville, Octavia spent two days in seminars, learning that HUD mandates resident participation in all phases of HOPE VI planning, and that Scott and Carver were being shortchanged in that regard.
She later learned that many Durkeeville residents didn't return after HOPE VI was rebuilt. When asked why, Octavia remembers someone from the Jacksonville housing authority answering that the former residents "didn't want to work."
A lifelong resident of public housing herself, Octavia didn't buy that. "It just seemed like everything was anti-resident, like we were just this bad bunch of people," she says.
As she studied Miami-Dade's HOPE VI plan for her community, Octavia became more convinced that the Hardemon brothers were right. HOPE VI was not the boon it seemed on the surface. For example, when Scott and Carver are redeveloped, the number of public-housing units will be reduced from 850 units to only 80. And while the housing agency touts HOPE VI as giving public-housing residents the opportunity to own homes, many Scott and Carver residents don't earn enough money to qualify. The median income of Scott residents is $7238, and a family will have to earn at least $12,126 to qualify for a one-bedroom house in the new development. HUD has recently approved a program where rental vouchers paid for by the federal government can be used toward mortgage payments on a home. The redeveloped Scott and Carver site will offer only 137 families that opportunity.
And a year after the Durkeeville trip, there still has been no information distributed about who will qualify for rent-to-own units, Octavia complains. The rest of the tenants will receive Section 8 rental vouchers. Section 8 offers choices unavailable in public housing, but it also has problems. A person with a Section 8 voucher can rent a home on the private market from any landlord willing to accept it, but each year, the landlord has the option not to renew. That kind of disruption isn't good for young families, Octavia offers. "A child deserves to know where he is going to lay his head at night," she says.
Alphonso Brewster, deputy director of the Miami-Dade Housing Agency, thinks Octavia exaggerates problems with rental vouchers. "I don't think there is any statistical evidence [to back up her fears]," he says. "There are 16,000 families currently in the Section 8 program. They have been renewing their leases and some have been with landlords for years."
The housing agency says the whole idea behind HOPE VI is to give public-housing residents choices about where they live. Most welcome that opportunity, Brewster believes. Given the options of using a rental voucher, buying a home, living in public housing, or entering a rent-to-own agreement, 60 percent of Scott and Carver residents said they would prefer a rental voucher, according to a July 1999 survey the agency did before the grant was awarded. And only 32 percent said they wanted to live in the Scott Homes neighborhood. While Octavia says the survey was flawed because residents didn't understand their choices, Brewster counters that residents will be fully informed as each family gets individual counseling and develops a plan before leaving Scott and Carver.
OTAC president Yvonne Green dismisses Octavia with one word: "Negative!" Green is a public-housing resident herself from the Wynwood area of Miami and has supported Miami-Dade HOPE VI from the start. She believes a small band of "outside agitators" and "naysayers" determined to stop HOPE VI at any cost got to Octavia and polluted her thinking. As a result, residents of Scott and Carver are being fed "fear instead of information." After an article published in the Miami Times in August 2000 quoted two Scott residents skeptical about the benefits of HOPE VI, Green wrote a letter to MDHA director Rene Rodriguez, concerned that the agency's message wasn't getting out:
"I hope you understand the seriousness of what the opposition is doing," Green wrote. "People are being misled. You've got serious fear among the people, especially the elderly. They are so afraid, so afraid. And then when they come to a meeting, they already have a wall built up." Almost a year later, she's still fighting the same battle. If residents understood HOPE VI, Green believes, they would be as passionate about its possibilities as she is. Green, a tall woman with a girlish, almost apologetic demeanor at odds with her size, gets really focused when she talks about this: "We should work with Rene Rodriguez to give the people knowledge of how this can help them make their lives better." HOPE VI and MDHA offer help to repair credit as a first step toward home ownership, help in returning to school, day-care services, health care.... Also, the housing agency has lined up businesses who've promised jobs for residents, technical-training programs, and work on the HOPE VI project itself as subcontractors.
As a conservative thinker, and one who identifies with the powers that be (as most of the housing agency/HUD/pro-HOPE VI folks do), the message of "opportunity" is the one Green thinks OTAC and Octavia should concentrate on. "As president of the resident council," Green charges, "[she's] got to look somewhere in there and see the positive and pull it out." Instead, Green says, "all Octavia has focused on since she was elected president is all the things that might go wrong." Green is worried that some residents will get caught up in the anti-HOPE VI rhetoric and miss taking advantage of the bounty. "If you don't plan what you want to do, they are going to plan it for you. I'm afraid someone is going to get lost in the shuffle."
And Green doesn't buy Octavia's altruistic "I'm not in this for me" routine. "Ms. Anderson has a hidden agenda," she says, ominously. Asked what it is, Green says she isn't sure. Told of Octavia's junior college attendance, Green concedes, "I'd give her an A plus for that, but she's got like what -- six kids? And she isn't a very good housekeeper.... "
Green also feels that Octavia has given too much power to Billy Hardemon: "I understand she opens the meetings and then turns it over to him."
As president of OTAC, Green sees MDHA and public-housing residents from a unique position. She's both on the inside and the outside. Her organization has a representative on the board of MDHA. OTAC must sign off on policy changes in public housing and on funding decisions. Green sees OTAC's role as that of an enforcer and facilitator and educator of MDHA rules. Last year, when Liberty Square president Barbara Pierre opposed a HOPE VI proposal for that housing project, Green tried and failed to get rid of her, too, much as she is with Octavia. Naturally, in exchange for her support of MDHA, Green expects patronage. OTAC is in line to bid on the job of moving residents out of the complex into their new homes. A daughter of Lottie Hines, who is Octavia's counterpart at Carver Homes, is bidding on the same contract. The three Scott board members who voted Octavia out of office are now employed by a county agency that is going door-to-door, beating the drum for HOPE VI.
"I like her. I still do," Green says of Octavia, rather unconvincingly. "But ... "
Octavia identifies with those residents who don't earn enough money to qualify for a homeownership program or can't repair their credit no matter how much advice they get. She's with those who don't earn enough to qualify for HOPE VI, even if they have a job. She's for the people who won't be able to return to the redeveloped Scott-Carver project because of criminal convictions, late rental payments, poor housekeeping, or some other official consideration. And then there are those families who relocate to other public housing, or use Section 8 rental vouchers to move into an apartment or home on the private market. What if they end up living in Naranja or Fort Lauderdale or Carol City? Will they get help with daycare, returning to school, finding jobs? In theory the answer is yes, but Octavia wants the housing agency to put it in writing before residents begin moving. "The more questions I ask, the less answers I get," she says exasperatedly.
At its heart, Octavia's fight is about wresting control of the discussion of HOPE VI away from its purveyors. Instead of the housing agency explaining to residents the choices and opportunities of HOPE VI, Octavia wants residents to tell the housing agency what they want and need. The problem is, HUD has already approved MDHA's plan, and alterations now could effect funding. But as relocation looms, Octavia has been joined by more and more activists from outside the complex: Max Rameau and Leroy Jones, both from the nonprofit Neighbors and Neighbors; Tony Romano from the Miami Workers' Center; and Earnestine Worthy, a long-time activist who is on the board of the Martin Luther King Economic Development Corporation that Billy Hardemon chairs. Their aim is to stop HOPE VI cold. They use tactics torn from the pages of Sixties protest manuals: ambush meetings, dignitary protests, stacked meetings. With their support, Octavia has become more radically committed to halting the project until key elements change.
Pamela Anderson was thirteen years old when she had Octavia. After a couple of years playing Mom, Pamela checked out. "She thought she was too young to be raising children," Octavia explains. Octavia and her brother and sister lived with their grandmother, Louise Hayes, and nine cousins in an apartment in Scott Homes. Louise Hayes provided the discipline. Pamela sent gifts at Christmas and on Octavia's birthdays. "But she wasn't there to raise me," Octavia says. Pamela, her mother, always seemed more like a glamorous big sister....
Although her grandmother was strict and tried to instill in Octavia a sense of purpose and responsibility, it was Pamela's example that Octavia followed. When she was thirteen, she got pregnant, too. Then, pregnant with her second child at age fifteen, she dropped out of high school. "My grandmother had a saying: You make your own bed, and you lie in it.' And I made a hard bed."
Octavia understood the choices her mother had made, the pressure she'd felt, and how easy it would have been to let someone else raise her children. But she decided to do what she needed to do. Louise Hayes applauded that choice. "My grandmother's proud of the fact that I'm here with all my kids, and they are excelling," Octavia says. "I guess I felt so strongly about that because my mother ... I made the opposite decision."
That's when Ms. Hayes's lessons kicked in. "She taught us values. I think she did a damn good job." Octavia says. She enrolled in a class to study for her GED. When the teacher wouldn't or couldn't explain things in ways that made sense to Octavia, she dropped out and studied on her own. When she failed the test the first time, she took it again and passed. "I knew if I put my mind to it, I could do it. And I just made a commitment," she says.
Octavia showed the same resilience at work. She took a minimum-wage job she hated, pricing stock at J Byrons. Now she earns $17,000 annually and feels good about the future. After sixteen years together, she and Phillip are talking about marriage. Her credit is good. She thinks she may be able to qualify for the county's first-time homebuyer program. She barely has time to catch her breath, but when she finally hits the bed at night, it's softer.
With that attitude, Octavia could be a poster child for the kind of person the housing agency would welcome back to the redeveloped Scott and Carver HOPE VI community with open arms. She's got gumption, grit, self-determination, and a can-do attitude that kept her keeping on despite the odds.
When Octavia looks around at the other women in the projects, she sees people like her grandmother and like herself. And if she has anything to do with it, she wants to make sure HOPE VI doesn't screw them over. Given opportunities and support, Octavia believes, a lot of these women would choose school, a decent job, and an opportunity to become homeowners. HOPE VI promises that. From personal experience, Octavia says she knows how hard it is when you are poor, uneducated, and relying on government programs. Trying to get aid from bureaucracies can get frustrating fast. If you complain, you're likely to get nothing: "A lot of them just done gave up," she explains. In community meetings Octavia exhorts Scott women to stick together and fight to get the housing agency to make more than promises. "If you don't stand up for yourself, you might as well just lay down," Octavia admonishes.
On a muggy Wednesday in May, everything began peacefully enough in the Scott Center's meeting room: a sterile, government-issue box with tan linoleum floors, lit by fluorescent bulbs. On brown metal folding chairs arranged in a circle sat a brigade of eager and well-meaning bureaucrats fresh from their Miami-Dade County jobs. Most wore dress shirts and sharp suits. They'd come to deliver what they believed was good news to the people of the Scott Homes project. The audience was smaller than expected -- nine black women scattered like birds, each with a brood of squirming young ones vying for lap time. A pumped-up speaker from Dorsey Educational Institute, himself thrilled by the great opportunities these women have knocking, is naming careers to be launched by his school: nursing assistant, electrician's helper... The women listen politely.
Soon other people start slipping in the door, Octavia's new allies: Roy Hardemon; Max Rameau, a Marxist and a former software designer; Earnestine Worthy. None live in Scott Homes, but all are "advising" Octavia, and are prominent in Miami African-American affairs.
Then Jeffrey Mellerson of Liberty City-based Low-Income Families Fighting Together stands up. "All these jobs and everything sounds good," he shouts, "but why are you waiting until now to tell us about it?" And then, his voice raised, Mellerson complains that as a convicted felon and recovering crack addict, out of jail for only two years, he can't get a job unless he lies about his record. All the training in the world "isn't going to help!" He goes into a rap about how tough it is for the black man to make it in this world when people who aren't his color just cruise on by.... Four cops had been watching the action. Now they abruptly close the meeting down. "Why can't you answer our questions?" someone yells. The cops clear the building.
Earnestine Worthy and a group of about fifteen move to a grassy strip near the community center's parking lot. Worthy begins praying in a loud voice: "Lord, please help your people!" Others chime in: "Why should the money come here because of the bad conditions we've lived in for years to give white people nice housing?" "I'm tired of playing this game!" Worthy begins a little high-step march, like a drum majorette. "It's time to start stepping, people! Start stepping!"
Attracted by the ruckus, Leila Cribbs and Shqingqla Culliver join the group. Both support HOPE VI: "The only thing you are going to do is upset the federal government!" Culliver yells. "They are going to take HOPE VI away, and pull the money out of here. The only thing you are gonna get the people is homeless! These projects are coming down. Nobody can stop these projects from coming down!"
Opponents of the program have formed an umbrella organization -- the Coalition to Fix HOPE VI -- to focus their efforts. It has a four-page list of demands of changes that must be made in the program, including making space for all present Scott and Carver residents; automatically admitting anyone who qualifies for public housing; and insuring 25 percent of all jobs and contracts associated with the program go to the residents.
The coalition has had some success. On May 8 the county commission passed a resolution sponsored by Dorrin Rolle to build a 150-unit complex in the neighborhood for current Scott and Carver residents. They would be permanently designated as Section 8 units, so families wouldn't have to worry about annual renewal. A survey also is being conducted to find out what kind of housing the people really want.
But Octavia isn't celebrating.
On May 29 she filed a federal lawsuit against Rene Rodriguez and the Miami-Dade Housing Agency, in which she points out that her presidency can only be taken away by a recall election, not by a trumped-up "official" vote. She charges that her removal was a retaliation for her opposition to HOPE VI. "Whichever way it falls," she says, "it won't be because I didn't try."
Octavia may win back her presidency, but her plan to change HOPE VI is probably a pipe dream. On background, a HUD representative told New Times that the Scott and Carver plan cannot be amended to add more units onsite without threatening the whole $35-million grant. Because of that, Green may have a point. Making sure that each resident who leaves gets full access to services, and keeping track of what happens to those who do move out, may be the best use of the resident association's energy.
Meanwhile at nearby Liberty Square public housing, opposition is heating up over a second HOPE VI application recently submitted to HUD. About 25 demonstrators from Miami's Workers' Center and Low-Income Families Fighting Together stormed executive director Rene Rodriguez's office June 8 to demand changes. A cop stopped them from entering the building, so they stayed outside chanting: "We want Rene!"
If Rodriguez's reaction is any indication, the housing agency isn't about to cave. "These people are social pimps," Rodriguez complained the day of the protest. "They are trying to stop us from breaking the cycle of poverty."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.