What Did You Do in the War on Poverty?
Steve Satterwhite

What Did You Do in the War on Poverty?

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Miami underwent significant change between 1990 and 2000, not least of which was the city's poverty rate: It grew with such exuberance that Miami climbed from fourth to first place among the nation's most impoverished big cities. That's reality. But if you believe the elected officials who served during that decade, it seems more like illusion.

New Times

posed this question: What did you do during your term in office to fight poverty in Miami?

J.L. Plummer
City Commissioner
I did a lot to fight poverty while I was in office. I led the effort to establish the East Little Havana nutrition centers. Today there are nine centers that feed seniors three times a day, seven days a week. We provided housing and all that through the community development corporations in East Little Havana. We also provided transportation for the elderly to go to doctors.

Joe Carollo
City Commissioner
1979-1987 and 1995-1996
1996-1997 and 1998-2001
Carollo did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Miller Dawkins
City Commissioner
Thank you for keeping me in mind, but I have no comment for your newspaper. [Dawkins was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison after pleading guilty in 1997 to accepting bribes.]

Xavier Suarez
1985-1992 and 1997-1998
In 1985, when I was first elected, the main problem with local government's ability to alleviate poverty was that we didn't have a housing agency. I activated the housing and conservation agency and worked with community-based organizations. Pretty soon we were able to energize the community-based organizations. By 1993 we had 1500 affordable housing units in the city. The more respectable projects include the Rio Plaza straddling Flagler Street in East Little Havana; Edison Towers, the pink apartment buildings off Interstate 95 and NW 58th Street; and Overtown Park West in downtown Miami. In Allapattah there was Melrose, which was spectacular. Those units were all home-ownership. People were able to put down $100 a month until they could close on a unit during the preconstruction phase. Housing is the lowest common denominator. If local government can't provide that, there's not a helluva lot government can do. Also I was instrumental in creating Miami Capital Development. For eight glorious years it was going gung-ho. We put together microloans with very little collateral. Sometimes we just gave out money from wherever we could find it. Miami Capital Development was an incredible effort. We got Z-Mart off the ground. We assisted the Caribbean Marketplace. [Both are now defunct.] The single most important thing we did was the minority component for Bayside Marketplace. We lent four or five million dollars to the minority retailers at Bayside -- although some were not exactly downtrodden minorities, such as [restaurant magnate] Felipe Valls and Las Tapas. [Las Tapas is now defunct.]

Victor de Yurre
City Commissioner
I can't put my finger on anything now. I can think of global things, like funding low-income housing projects. We also had those façades on Eighth Street, Overtown, and Liberty City -- injections of money that helped people spruce up places. I can't think of any individual thing I did. I really can't think of anything else I could have done.

Miriam Alonso
City Commissioner
Alonso did not respond to New Times. She has been indicted by the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office and faces multiple felony charges, including grand theft, unlawful compensation, fabricating evidence, and fraud.

Wilfredo "Willy" Gort
City Commissioner
I think we did plenty with the tools we had. I feel very good about the job I did. We had financial problems from 1995 through 1999. We had to work very hard to keep the city alive and attract new businesses and improve the public rights-of-way with limited resources. Now you're beginning to see the plans to improve quality of life in the city being implemented. There are sidewalk repairs throughout several neighborhoods. In downtown Miami we secured $14 million in federal, state, and local funding to renovate Flagler Street and other side streets to make it more attractive. Now people are building condos on First and Flagler. The Congress Building was empty for 25 years. Now 90 families live there. In Allapattah we had problems with the produce markets. I stepped in there with the merchants, NET office, the Environmental Protection Agency, and state and county environmental agencies to clean up the area. You go by there now and it's clean, the homeless have been given training, and they're working there. We maintained existing businesses. One example is Trujillo & Sons, who just underwent a ten-million-dollar expansion of their warehouse. Look at Bobby Maduro Stadium, where a residential development is going up. That's going to create new consumers in Allapattah. Now we have small merchants living in that district.

Humberto Hernandez
City Commissioner
I went after the slumlords. I started these sweeps in different apartment buildings to bring properties up to code. A lot of the tenants were seniors living in Section 8 properties with absentee landlords. Many were roach-infested, lacked a/c, had roof problems. My main focus was to fix these problems and the abuse they were taking from landlords. The sweeps improved the quality of life for these people living on a fixed income or below the poverty level. It gave people a more habitable environment to live in. Secondly I went after the food quality of the senior centers. I improved the quality by getting more state money into the food programs. I invested my time in lobbying the state legislature, which controlled the purse strings. [Hernandez was recently released from prison after serving sentences for convictions on a state charge of voter fraud and federal charges of money laundering and mortgage fraud.]

Tomas Regalado
City Commissioner
1997 to present
I am proposing a tax abatement for businesses, which will drastically decrease unemployment in the city. I was able to extend the area where we can spend federal money to address community development. In the past we could only use federal dollars in East Little Havana and Allapattah to redo store façades for the various small-business people. I was able to extend it to all the District 4 area, including the Flagler Street and SW Eighth Street corridors. What we have done is help fix the façades of 89 small businesses that, in turn, were able to hire at least one new employee. The other thing I have been able to do is use the city's law-enforcement trust fund to pay for summer camps and to pay for transportation, movies, and lunches for inner-city children. This was never done before. I am very proud of that. Not that I claim I have eliminated poverty, but I have done a little.

Art Teele
City Commissioner
1997 to present
I've focused on three things: jobs, jobs, and more jobs. It's not that complicated, really. The problem in Liberty City and Little Haiti is that we don't have black-owned businesses or businesses that hire from within the community. As a city commissioner I've worked to create opportunities and incentives to create black-owned businesses and require general contractors to hire from within the community. I've also provided direct support through the Model City Revitalization Trust, a $100 million project to build 1000 affordable homes. The contractors have to hire from within the affected area. That is how we deal with poverty: Create jobs. Overtown has the highest rate of unemployment. We have to provide incentives and provide support for existing businesses to expand and new businesses to come in. We are looking at a bowling alley. The owner could become the largest employer in Overtown. He's talking about creating 30 jobs. We worked with Sax on the Beach, a business in front of Margaret Pace Park, to ease the permitting for their water-and-sewer service. In exchange we asked them to hire from within the community, and they have lived up to the agreement. Then there is Jackson Soul Food. If they complete their expansion, they will double their twelve-person work force. In Overtown a business with eight or ten employees is a big operation. The key is to get more black-owned businesses and provide incentives to all businesses that provide jobs in a targeted area. I think I've done that successfully.

Joe Sanchez
City Commissioner
1998 to present
The City of Miami is paying for the sins of the past. But we are making progress. Just look at all the development in the city. Any new development provides jobs. And it all boils down to j-o-b-s. I was the first commissioner to hold a development summit. I was very proud of that. We became development-friendly, which we weren't. No one wanted to come here. People thought we were all crooks or were inept or that we couldn't get anything done. Property values in the city have increased an average of thirteen percent. That tells you the city is making progress. The other thing I am proud of is the redevelopment and revitalization of Calle Ocho with Viernes Culturales. My goal is to make SW Eighth Street one of our busiest corridors. Take a walk between SW Fourteenth Avenue and Seventeenth Avenue and look at all the new businesses -- like Little Havana-to-Go, Alfaro's, 911 Embroidery, and ArtCuba -- that have revitalized Eighth Street and created new employment. Ten years from now we are not going to be the poorest city in the nation because we are making progress. We still have a lot of work to do. It's not easy. But we can't do any worse than what's been done in the past.

Johnny Winton
City Commissioner
1999 to present
How the hell am I going to take credit for stuff without sounding self-serving? Well, one of the first things I did dealt with specific revitalization efforts, one in West Coconut Grove, one in Wynwood, and one in Little Haiti. The principal focus was about reclaiming neighborhoods and creating a much better quality of life. The first thing was to go after the bad guys -- principally the drug dealers. We went after them with a vengeance. Then we went after the other bad guys, the absentee landlords who allow drug dealers to set up shop in their buildings. We took two or three streets at a time and did in-depth analyses of every single property in that zone: which ones were good, which ones were bad, which ones were owner-occupied, vacant, commercial, single-family -- a complete inventory. Those properties with serious violations, we went after them. The other thing I'm working on is a long-term, comprehensive master plan so local government can focus on neighborhoods, where every dollar is spent as a building block to a total plan. We just completed the FEC railyard redevelopment plan, which includes some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, a big chunk of Overtown, Wynwood, Lemon City, and Little Haiti. The plan will really help improve the quality of life and livability of these neighborhoods and bring scarce government money to the table. When the next census rolls around, Miami will no longer be the poorest city. Government is doing a much better job.

Angel Gonzalez
City Commissioner
2001 to present
I have not yet begun to fight poverty as an elected official, but I did a lot to address poverty when I was president of the Allapattah Business Development Authority. I helped create jobs and low-income housing for residents living in Allapattah. For example, we assisted Balsan Inc., a local retailer, go from 10 employees in 1980 to 100 employees and $10 million in annual sales today. We also assisted in the expansion of the La Mia supermarkets, which employ 140 people in my district. We also assisted in the development of several low-income housing projects such as the Fern Isle Gardens condominiums and the Ralph Plaza Towers. [Ralph Plaza Towers remains uncompleted.] At Fern Isle, people were able to buy by putting up a down payment of five percent of the condo's sale price. Today they pay an average of $400 a month, including maintenance. That created an average savings of $400 a month for low-income housing considering rents for a three-bedroom apartment averaged $800 a month.

Manny Diaz
2001 to present
One of the things we've been working on is maximizing existing resources for Miami's poor. For instance, if your family earns less than $32,000 a year, you can claim an earned-income tax credit. In conjunction with Miami-Dade County, the Human Services Coalition, and the Knight Foundation, we're using $250,000 for a major grassroots campaign to educate Miami residents about this tax credit, which has an average return of $1500. That's a pretty sizable amount of money. For people who are working poor or have a tough time making ends meet, a windfall of $1500 at the end of the year is a significant amount of money. Then you get people to save some of that money to provide a government match for home ownership, or pay off credit debt. I'm also looking at home ownership. We're looking at how we can improve the delivery of affordable housing, which has been much maligned in the press over the years. I'm working toward starting some type of interlocal agreement between the county and the city on how to fund affordable housing. Another thing is to help people become entrepreneurs. To support new entrepreneurs and existing small-business owners, the city will underwrite a new microlending effort. The city's small investment will help leverage $1.7 million in private loan capital and provide entrepreneurs much-needed access to legal and technical assistance. As a major employer within the community, the city will also make a concerted effort to explore adoption of a living-wage ordinance.


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