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Saturday, February 25, 2006

Overtown Questions

First let me state this- Omar Sommereyns at the Miami Sun Post is not only back to form, he is shaping up to be one of the best journalists in Miami these days, which may not be as boast-worthy as it could be. Ahh, but in his efforts he dealt another blow to the weary and sore.

His article this week about a group of well intentioned Overtown residents hinted at a ray of hope in that dismal precinct. From my contract management work I had been aware that a group had formed a neighborhood organization named "Power U". I met its founders while attending community gatherings with a friend who is an activist in Overtown. I joked about the name of the organization which had been popular street slang in New York for a lady's nether regions. Closer reading of Omar’s article revealed that the name was not the only unfortunate attribute of these particular Overtown residents.

I need not go into the history of the city’s perfidy in dealing with this neighborhood. The reason is not simply because most informed people are aware of the history; Overtown’s present and future problems are so pressing.

The article concentrated on affordable housing as the chief issue facing local residents. This was not because Omar steered in this direction. Residents are preoccupied with this issue. If affordable housing was at the crux of Overtown‘s difficulties that would have meant that the community is confronting its problems. But it isn’t. Income levels among Overtown residents is the problem.

That is not to say affordable housing is a plentiful commodity throughout Miami-Dade or even in this low rent district. It isn't. We need to provide affordable housing opportunities in Overtown and throughout the region.

The last thing any developer, homeowner or upper income renter wants is to have a bunch of poor people around. More to the point, the last thing that helps the poor are to be congregated into a single area. In the Sun Post article an Overtown resident and Power U member seems to state that maintaining current residents or getting former residents to return to the area would create a healthier community with better housing. Of course it would not. His point does raise the issue of what plans there are for providing housing for current residents. And this is where we encounter more convoluted suggestions, not by stressed residents; but by people whose job is to provide workable solutions.

Frank Rollason, head of the Overtown CRA has an on-demand hand wringing performance that he has repeately offered for public consumption. He would like to create set aside condos for the po' folks of Overtown but suggests that nothing can be it would cause new, insurmountable obstacles like maintenance fees or insurance. Obviously no one promotes putting the poorest of the poor in the most expensive units of a multi-million dollar condo. He knows the issue is greater than a single condo building but the character of development throughout the neighborhood. This red herring that Frank puts out there is to wholly avoid the issue of affordable housing. Frank’s bosses have another plan.

As noted in the article, the Miami Zoning Board unanimously approved a zoning change for a Royal Palm “workforce/employee housing” project at 1200 NW First Ave. and 115 NW 12th St., despite a recommendation for denial from the city’s planning staff. Miamista has chronicled in other postings that Mayor Dickhead and his chubby little prick Mini-Me Arriola are known for intimidating city department heads into doing exactly as told. And what they are being told is to turn land over to developers for little money so the mayor's buddies can indulge in speculation that the market doesn’t support.

Racism is also at play here. Few poor residents of Little Havana are not being pushed out of their neighborhoods to provide giveaways to developers. Instead the mayor wants to create order in these neighborhoods, with his quality of life policing initiatives jointly enforced by NET offices and the MPD. For all of the poverty in Little Havana, at least the neighborhood seems to have economic activity. In the minds of Mayor Dickhead and his crew however, Blacks in Overtown seem to be hopelessly hopeless. He may be right.

There is no plan whatsoever by the residents and leaders, elected or otherwise, to address the issue of poverty itself. The neighborhood needs job training, after school educational programs, career exploration and child care. There is a dearth of clinics offering health care for the poor (especially preventative, dental and eye care). Residents need access to capital, entrepreneurial education and tax abatement to foster new businesses. Instead local residents are fixated on low cost housing.

There has been talk of some of this, great ideas dropped as quickly as they were brought up. Talk of building a new technical instruction center in Overtown by the Miami Dade School Board. And since Miami Dade College created a campus based on the particular needs of an ethnic group in Hialeah, (a stones throw from North Campus), they can open a satellite campus in Overtown. Imagine such a school offering instruction strictly in licensed professions, technology and entrepreneurial education. Imagine.

So there is no pursuit of ideas and no pursuit of housing initiatives. Two years ago the Herald did a two part investigation about how the city misused $35 million in federal funds designated for affordable housing. The money was siphoned off to corrupt local non-profits with connections to city leaders. Virtually no housing was built. The federal government cut funding. So now there is no money. The mayor and his minions, including his then “urban policy advisor” Michelle Spence-Jones had little to say.

Besides poverty, what Overtown still has is vacant land and substandard housing. The city has failed to aggressively go after slumlords, owners of neglected lots, and other delinquents. It also has made it clear that speculative, out of character projects will be approved rather than upgraded, affordable housing. The city stubbornly refuses to assemble a portfolio of properties to turn over to competent community development corporations to build affordable housing and retail space for local residents, business owners and entrepreneurs. It does not place municipal buildings in the neighborhood. The only initiative of Miami’s festering leadership is to screw over the poor and give the spoils to rich cronies.

So I have to remember that I may not always want journalists to ask the hard questions. I think Omar knows that asking some questions will get us news that we don’t want to hear. Still, great work Omar.

P.S. There are updates/additions to the last two articles. And thanks for the comments.

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