Raze and Rebuild
The largest public-housing project in Florida stretches from all sides of Trena's front porch like the garrison of some battle-fatigued army. The beige walls and brown roofs of the two-story buildings that make up the James E. Scott Homes replicate in staggered rows across 50 acres of former landfill.
This afternoon the structures couldn't appear more drab or dull. Lead-gray clouds suffocate the sky and a recent rain has turned the sandy earth to mud. Trena has fled her dark, humid apartment for the porch, where she is weaving blond extensions into her neighbor Bernadine Dent's hair. Nineteen-year-old Trena's own locks are contained in a black net. An ice-cream truck rolls by, luring kids from the concrete-slab porches like a night-light attracts moths. The entire small universe that is the projects seems to pass by on the street: a white-and-green Orkin truck on a rendezvous with some roaches, a Miami-Dade police cruiser, a tricked-out Lincoln full of young bangers low-riding on chrome rims, a shiny white county car carrying a social worker, a dusty truck with a bed full of dusty laborers.
"I'll miss the neighborhood," says Dent as she surveys the puddle-pocked street. "I been here five years, and we had about three incidents. But otherwise our row is very quiet, very quiet." Incidents mean murders the 35-year-old has witnessed. "One boy, he was buying ice cream, and two guys rolled up and shot him up. We were all sitting out here on the porch. Another time we saw a boy get chased and shot right over there. We were all yelling, 'Don't do it, don't do it.' And one time my daughter was talking to somebody and he pushed her down just as he got shot. But beside that, in five years, it's been quiet."
Homicides aren't the only quality-of-life issue in Scott and its neighboring complex, Carver Homes. The structures are deteriorating. Far less than half of the apartments have air conditioners. Cracked foundations and walls have allowed vermin to enter. In some buildings roaches crawl on the walls in thick clusters. Plumbing frequently breaks in the decades-old system, backing up sinks and toilets. Roof leaks leave mildew stains on the walls.
The county expects federal approval soon for a plan to transform Scott and Carver homes into a new style of public housing. All the residents will likely have to depart and less than half will be able to return. Most agree on the need for better maintenance and upkeep, but many are reluctant to leave. This may be the projects, but it's their projects. For many it's the only home they know.
Scott Homes, and its smaller neighbor, Carver Homes, both located in the area of NW 22nd Avenue between 62nd and 79th streets, are the result of segregationist social engineering and genuine concern for the county's poorest citizens. Now, 45 years after opening, it's all been declared a mistake: the herding of a destitute population into a fringe location, the unventilated design of the dwellings, and construction of a small city of numbing sameness.
So, beginning in February 2000, the county intends to raze Scott-Carver. Provided the Miami-Dade Housing Agency wins a U.S. HUD grant this summer, 850 buildings will be demolished by 2002. In their place 462 townhouses will likely rise. Roughly 3500 residents face relocation.
Bernadine Dent and Trena are understandably apprehensive. For them and other denizens, the county's plans are reminiscent of past governmental efforts at mass displacement. In the 1960s thousands of blacks were rousted from their homes when Interstate 95 was built through Overtown. This past year the U.S. government settled a federal lawsuit filed in Miami by acknowledging that officials had been steering low-income blacks to the housing projects while giving other races vouchers to rent from private landlords. That revelation rubbed raw the wounds caused by precivil rights-era segregation.
"I am concerned with this history of community engineering, where they move people around like sacks of potatoes," says activist Max Rameau, who has agitated for more government concessions. "I don't trust HUD. They have basically admitted sending us to bad places. And with the level of corruption in the county, especially in the construction industry, this is a recipe for disaster for the most vulnerable segment of society."
Like many Scott residents, Rameau suspects that the rebuilding plans are intended to remove black occupants so other groups, perhaps the white middle class, can move in.
Miami-Dade Housing Agency spokeswoman Sherra McLeod has heard all this before. "The fear that these homes are going to be taken over by other minorities, it's just not going to happen," she says. In fact county officials speak of the changes optimistically. Better conditions will make amends for past mistakes. The bureaucrats and engineers will create a quaint community where low-income residents can buy their homes and ultimately be lifted "from dependence and persistent poverty," as described in HUD's executive summary.
The county has applied for a $40.4 million grant from the HUD's HOPE VI Revitalization Program. (HOPE is an acronym for Home Ownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere.) The Miami-Dade Housing Agency will add $39.4 million from its own budget, the county will provide roughly $13 million, the program's income will generate $1.8 million, and another $11 million will come from other sources. The total proposed spending for the new Scott Homes is $106 million. Even if the feds deny the grant, local housing authorities plan to proceed with some part of the renovation.
Slums will almost certainly be replaced by one- and two-story buildings with front lawns, carports, and screened-in porches. One of the keys to breaking the entrenched pattern of poverty at places like Scott and Carver homes is creating a mixed-income environment, according to the county's application for federal backing. To that end the new complex will be open to various types of buyers: 135 units will be rent-to-own; 247 will be sold to low-income families at special prices that include federally subsidized loans; and the remaining 80 will be available as standard public housing to residents below the poverty line whose rent will be government-subsidized.
All current Scott Homes residents fall into the last category; most will be dispersed in a kind of diaspora, according to the plan. As part of HUD's Section 8 program, they will be given vouchers to subsidize rental of apartments from participating landlords. The county will pay their moving costs. But it remains to be seen whether the extremely poor will benefit. On one hand Section 8 is considered desirable because it allows tenants to escape the stigma of public housing. On the other hand, there is no guarantee of sufficient rentals in Liberty City, so residents could end up far from home.
The huge public-housing projects of the past "created tremendous failures," says Joe Scafuti, Miami-Dade Housing Agency's HOPE VI coordinator. "The idea is to do it right."
Both Scafuti and Robert Levis, the agency's special projects administrator, speak of HOPE VI as if they were religious converts. For the past three years they have tried and failed to win grants for the endeavor. But their past proposals promised only renovations and remodeling of existing buildings. That was unenlightened, they now say.
"HUD basically kept saying, 'You didn't get [the idea], guys. These are the same poorly designed buildings,'" Levis recounts. It wasn't until Eleanor Bacon, the HUD official in charge of HOPE VI, visited in 1998 that they saw the light. "She looked around and said, 'This development is not worth saving. It has to be demolished.'"
As a result the most recent grant applications have proposed total demolition, an approach that Levis and Scafuti are confident will win approval later this summer. "The reason we didn't win in the past wasn't all our fault," Levis says. "There were many developments around the country that were a lot worse than us. Cities like Chicago, Baltimore, and Boston got all the money."
But now, he adds, the most urgent problems have all been solved. It's Miami's turn. "Now we are one of the most distressed areas in the country."
Distressed also describes the residents. At the Scott Homes Community Center recently, confusion reigned at a public hearing on the plan. Max Rameau was distributing flyers that warned "DO NOT SIGN IN. The Miami-Dade Housing Agency has refused to answer our questions and treated the residents and friends of Scott-Holmes [sic] with no respect."
Attendees, mostly black women, needed little prompting. Their homes were scheduled for demolition and less than half of the residents would be allowed to return. "Where we going to go?" one woman asked. A white man in a beige shirt, brown tie, and brown slacks, stood at a podium explaining drawings of the proposed townhouses until a woman in a brightly colored scarf and long acrylic nails cut him short. "What you are saying is of no concern, because half of the people in this room won't be coming back here," she said, glowering. Then, with arms planted on her hips, she continued, "I don't have the power, the money, or the say-so to stop this, so you gotta be absolutely honest with us." The crowd roared in approval.
Public housing was born during the Great Depression of the 1930s and the attendant homelessness that ensued. In Miami tough times merely aggravated the already foul living conditions of Dade County's blacks. According to Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, by Florida International University professor Marvin Dunn, the main black ghetto, then known as Colored Town, later as Overtown, had no running water, indoor plumbing, or paved streets. People lived in wooden shacks. Tuberculosis and other diseases were common. Throughout the 1930s Fr. John E. Culmer, a black Episcopal priest, campaigned for better housing. Eventually he was heard.
In 1937 Pres. Franklin Roosevelt signed the first public-housing act. One of the first three federally funded complexes was built in Liberty City, a fast-growing black enclave north of Colored Town. Called Liberty Square, it started with only 34 units between NW 62nd and 67th streets at Fourteenth Avenue. Liberty Square substantially improved living conditions for its residents. While Overtown dwellers still used tin washtubs, oil lamps, and wood stoves, the new development offered plumbing, hot and cold water, gas, and electricity.
The first administrator of Liberty Square was James E. Scott. The Georgia native was a college graduate, a veteran, and a civic leader. He maintained the project with military discipline, demanding that residents keep it clean and in good repair. Scott became such a legend that when the county and federal government embarked on a plan to construct a much larger complex in 1954, authorities named it after him. Planners originally conceived of Scott Homes as temporary lodging for low-income families. "Because it was seen as transitional housing, the original concept was to pack in as many people as possible, as cheaply as possible," Robert Levis says.
On a recent afternoon 73-year-old Alberta Harrell, a tall, fine-boned woman in a housecoat, slacks, and a turban-style headwrap, recounted her move into Scott Homes four decades ago. The daughter of Georgia sharecroppers, Harrell arrived in Miami with her husband Sylvester during the 1940s to search for work. Both found it: he in construction and she in a shrimp-packing plant. The shrimp factory's odor was so strong that even today Harrell refuses to eat the crustaceans. In the early 1950s Harrell recalls walking to work across the empty fields where the first Scott Homes were built. At the time she was living in a one-bedroom apartment with her husband and eight children. "We had to use the living room as a bedroom," she recalls.
When Scott Homes opened, the Harrells were one of the first families to move in. "Oh, they were nice; everything was so beautiful and clean," she remembers. Harrell stayed. She and Sylvester separated sometime around 1957. She never remarried. "I'll never be that dumb again," she says with a grin.
In all she raised ten children here and helped care for her first grandchild with discipline she finds woefully lacking in many of today's families. "You had to be strict with 'em," she explains. "Didn't allow them to sass back or go off at night. In them days the children didn't hardly go no farther than the corner. At night they come inside. Nowadays [parents] don't hardly have no control on their children."
To illustrate what a strict disciplinarian she was, Harrell recounts coming home one day and smelling a pungent odor upstairs: Her oldest son was smoking a joint. Harrell found his stash and marched to the manager's office with it. "I put him out. I ain't about to allow him to live in my house smoking no reefer," she says firmly. "The lady at the rent office, she said, 'He just eighteen.' I said, 'I don't care, I don't need no reefer smokin' in my house.'"
In the 1960s public-housing tenants across the nation earned a mix of incomes, according to Sandra Newman, a Johns Hopkins professor and visiting fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. That range created a healthy environment.
By the 1980s this economic profile began to change, according to Newman, editor of The Home Front: Implications of Welfare Reform for Housing. Then-Pres. Ronald Reagan vowed to make public spending more efficient, so housing funds were directed to the poorest of the poor -- people paying 50 percent or more of their income on rent. As a result the projects' population became hard-core poor and overwhelmingly black. Scott-Carver homes were no exception. The residents became poorer and as the crack-cocaine trade exploded, their environment became more violent.
Ann-Marie Adker, who lived in a public-housing complex in Overtown much of her life and died in 1994, believed problems in public housing were the result of a conspiracy. In 1987 she and four other women filed a federal lawsuit against Dade County and U.S. HUD alleging racial discrimination. The women argued that officials steered blacks into public housing and gave low-income Hispanics and whites Section 8 vouchers. Adker and her fellow plaintiffs believed this system kept blacks in high-crime neighborhoods with poor schools and few job opportunities. "I'm tired of every time I open my door, a dead body is outside," Adker's coplaintiff Toni Lee Flanders said in a hearing, according to a 1998 Miami Herald article. "I want to go to a better place."
All the plaintiffs had repeatedly applied for Section 8 aid. Similar lawsuits were filed across the nation. "If you look at the national statistics you have to conclude that there is some kind of channeling going on," comments Newman.
In 1998 the county and HUD settled the suit, paying four plaintiffs $10,000 each and putting them at the top of the list to receive Section 8 housing. Adker, the fifth plaintiff, died before the accord was reached, so the government paid $10,000 to her estate. The women's victory meant widespread concessions for black tenants. A measure that housing authorities call "the Adker decree" requires counselors to fully brief public-housing applicants on all available housing options. Moreover half of the county's Section 8 vouchers for the next ten years will be set aside solely for black applicants.
Although Scott Homes has served Alberta Harrell well, she made sure her children found places to live elsewhere. None of them have been arrested, she maintains, and all are doing well. Her oldest son works for the United Parcel Service, one daughter is employed by the U.S. Post Office, and another daughter has a job at a hospital. Her youngest son is in the military. The son she evicted hurt his back on a job and is on disability, but he's married and has a family.
As Harrell tells her tale, she sits by a barred window in her kitchen. On a table are coupons from the African Continental Meat Market advertising turkey necks for 59 cents per pound and Southern hens for 79 cents per pound. She doesn't sit in front of the window. Rather she takes her usual chair just to the right of the glass, against the wall. "You never know when they start shooting," she says by way of explanation. "That's why I always sit here."
The soundness of her home offers great consolation. Hurricane Andrew and a parade of other storms failed to damage it. She's seen bullets fired at other Scott residences and claims they just scratched the exterior. "See, bullets don't go through these walls," she says. "I seen where they hit. They just peel the paint. Over in Lincoln Fields [an adjacent public housing project], bullets go right through the walls."
Because there are usually people outside day and night, burglars have never entered her apartment. "That's why I say I'm scared to go someplace else," she admits.
"My oldest son, he heard about all of the plans to demolish these homes. He say, 'Momma, I'm gonna come down there and find you a house.' I said, 'You ain't finding nothing. I don't want to go nowhere else.'"
Just around the corner from Harrell, on NW 68th Street, the Kinsey clan is dodging the midday heat. Three women and a man sit on chairs around a waist-high cage containing three colorful parakeets. A half-dozen children are playing on bikes or splashing through a mud puddle. Inside their apartment, two teenage boys play Nintendo Street Fighter. Twenty-one people spanning three generations share the six-bedroom unit.
"They need to be remodeled, but it ain't right to move us out and not let us back," says Malincia Kinsey, the 45-year-old matriarch, about her home for the past thirteen years. There are numerous cracks in the walls and foundations that allow roaches and rats to enter. "The roaches are so bad," she says, waving her hand through the air as if to swat away phantom bugs.
"It bad. Cockroaches be flying over your head at night," chimes in ten-year-old Shantrese, pointing upstairs to the bedrooms. "And it's hot up there when you're sleeping."
Just then two boys, six-year-old Danzel and seven-year-old Daniel, shriek with delight. "Look!" They're pointing to a roach scurrying into the parakeet's cage.
"You want to see how bad it is? I'll show you," Malincia Kinsey says. She leads a reporter to the living room and gestures to a cockroach that scoots across the floor as another climbs up the wall. But it's not until Kinsey reaches the kitchen that the magnitude of the problem becomes obvious. There above the sink a colony of 30 to 50 roaches scurries back and forth in a tight cluster by a crack in the ceiling.
"No matter how much spray I use, they still come," she notes.
Several generations of unemployed people crammed together in squalid conditions is exactly the kind of arrangement housing officials hope to eliminate in the new Scott-Carver homes. In fact a report submitted with the HOPE VI grant points out that soil erosion around the foundations has allowed rats, roaches, and termites to infiltrate the buildings. It also notes that "deteriorated clay piping" breaks down with "unusually high frequency."
Like Harrell, the Kinseys live in Sector I of Scott Homes, the first set of buildings scheduled for demolition. County officials originally told them that work would commence this summer. Malincia Kinsey bought boxes and supplies, then waited to hear more. No one, she says, told them construction was delayed. "We waiting to hear more. We don't know where we going to end up," she sighs.
These days everyone is in limbo. Residents continue to grumble as the county awaits word on the federal grant. If the money is awarded, change won't be immediate. The housing agency will send counselors to help guide residents through the process. Even then, questions remain: Will the poorest of them benefit from the move or will they be further marginalized?
Alberta Harrell has an important query of her own: Will the walls of her new home stop a bullet?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.