Umoja Village Saga Continues (UPDATED)

This afternoon, Miami City Commissioners decided not to give a slice of Liberty City land to a group of housing activists – even though the commission supported the idea “in principle” last week.

It was those same activists – among them, Max Rameau – who built a shantytown on the property, located at NW 62nd Street and 17th Avenue. The property was actually owned by the city, a parcel that had been slated for an affordable housing development that – surprise, surprise – never got off the ground.

As it turned out, the activists were better organized than the city. They called the shantytown Umoja Village, and its residents were made up of a cross-section of the city’s homeless. It was part protest, part street theater and a necessity. For six months, the residents and the activists built small cardboard and wood homes, cooked meals in a communal kitchen and planted gardens. International media visited during the Superbowl in February, and the place became a symbol of Miami’s affordable housing crisis. But the entire village burned to the ground in April, the victim of an unattended candle.

The days following the fire were tense. Rameau and the residents wanted to rebuild. The city, which was embarrassed by the attention Umoja had received, encircled the property with a fence and told the protestors and residents to leave.

But Rameau and others wouldn’t give up. He asked the city to convey the land to the activists, so they could partner with a local non-profit to develop affordable housing on the site. He started a group called Save the People Inc., which is in the process of becoming a non-profit so the city could legally convey the land to the group.

Just last Thursday, the City Commission passed a motion to support “in principle” a project called Umoja Rising; it would have been built with help from Rameau’s group and Carrfour Supportive Housing, an affordable housing developer.

But what a difference a weekend makes. Since the commission announced it’s tentative support, the County’s Homeless Trust has stepped in. Trust Chairman Ron Book told commissioners it wouldn’t be fair to donate the land without a competitive bid process.

During today’s commission meeting, Rameau railed against Book and the Homeless Trust, saying that “a kingmaker killed the whole decision.” Rameau also wondered aloud why a millionaire such as Book – who obviously doesn’t live in Liberty City – can have such influence on city matters. Book is a well-known, high-priced lobbyist, whose clients include Florida Power and Light and Bell South.

The City Commission decided to go with City Manager Pete Hernandez’ recommendation to put the project up for bid – with the stipulation that whoever wins the bid must work with Umoja to develop the project.

For another take on the Umoja land deal, check out Eye on Miami.

UPDATE: Check out Max Rameau's blog on the Umoja issue.

-Tamara Lush

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Tamara Lush