Minority community developers promote mixed-income housing
By Risa Polansky
As City of Miami and Miami-Dade County officials battle over a mixed-income housing project slated for Overtown, a group of minority community developers has begun a cry to promote such development as a catalyst for economic revitalization in poor areas.
Mixed-income housing could be a draw for businesses to set up shop and for those who left impoverished areas during their downfalls to return and make a difference, they say.
"With mixed-income housing comes other business opportunities," said Philip Bacon, general manager of The Growth Partnership, an initiative of the Collins Center for Public Policy, a think tank with offices in Tallahassee and Miami.
"If people want goods and services in their community, they can't get those goods and services if they warehouse, concentrate poverty," he said.
Jihad S. Rashid, president of the Coconut Grove Collaborative, a non-profit founded to address area development issues, said it comes down to a simple principle."Money, to put it simply or coarsely, attracts money," he said.
Both men feel these concepts become lost during passionate discussion of affordable housing and are seeking a forum to air their alternative views.
"There needs to be more dialogue about it," Mr. Rashid said.
He, Mr. Bacon and others have recently "taken the steps to begin to address this and present a counterpoint," he said.
Though the men say their message applies to all low-income areas in need of revitalization, the move to take a stand comes in response to recent debate over developer Crosswinds' Sawyer's Walk, a project planned for Overtown that may be on its last legs.
Five years in the making, the housing development would bring 1,050 mixed-income units to the area.
Mr. Bacon said his organization had a hand in drawing Crosswinds to Overtown but says "we had no economic ties to the Crosswinds project."
Mr. Rashid said he is not connected to the project at all.
Crosswinds' project is simply an "example," he said. "This scenario manifests in other places."
Sawyer's Walk has drawn much criticism from those who believe it should include more affordable housing.
The Power U Center for Social Change, an Overtown advocacy group, has vehemently protested the project, concerned it would gentrify Overtown, inviting in more affluent residents and driving up rental rates in the area, among other issues.
The group was able to obtain a court-forced reversal of the City of Miami's 2006 decision to approve the project due to errors in the first public-hearing process, but commissioners re-approved it last month after hours of protest from Power U representatives, who attended the meeting in droves to demand more affordable housing.
Denise Perry, the center's organizing director, said this week that a project like Crosswinds' would cause "indirect displacement." In "increasing property values," the project would have a domino effect, impacting "landlords that then take it out on renters," she said.
In last year tearing down two apartment buildings to build Logik Towers, a Class A office building in Overtown, 45 families were displaced, Ms. Perry said.
Because "we don't have enough quality housing that exists," she said, "many of them have become homeless, many of them live with other family members."
Even without Sawyer's Walk, about 50 people in the last four-to-six months have come to Power U for help after being evicted from their homes for their inability to pay rent, she said.
Sawyer's Walk would offer 160 for-sale housing units at 80%-140% of the local area median income, give 50 units to the Overtown Community Redevelopment Agency to be sold also as low-income housing, and allow the city and county to each buy 62 units to sell as they please.
City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, who represents poor areas like Overtown and Liberty City, took the position of Mr. Bacon and Mr. Rashid.
"In order to have a vibrant community, you need to have a mixed community," she said before voting to approve the project. "You cannot have a community that's going to survive and thrive without having that mix."
But County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson has said she would not support a project until 15%-20% is formally committed to affordable housing, some at 40% or below of the area median income.
She has vowed to enact a reversion clause that would put the land slated for the project back under county control, killing the planned mixed-income development. City commissioners have hired a lawyer to fight it.
The Crosswinds hoopla, Mr. Bacon said, is "typical of the sensationalism and emotionalism that happens wherever certain buzzwords are introduced," such as "gentrification."
He said he feels, in the crossfire over the land and project, the need to infuse mixed incomes and draw businesses to the area "are the kinds of things people are not saying that need to be said."
The "sensationalism associated with redevelopment," he said, has clouded "the real fundamentals of redevelopment."
One of which, he said, is private participation."Government is just a catalyst," Mr. Bacon said, "not the primary engine for economic development."
Mr. Rashid cited "a failure of leadership" from local officials.
"Projects have ultimately been held hostage, and no one's being served by it," he said.
He called 100% affordable housing projects a "disincentive for investment" that don't encourage educated, successful former residents to return to their communities and invest in them.
But Ms. Perry called it a "misnomer that there's some dire emergency" to bring "wealth" into the community, citing the fact that there's a well-established Regions Bank in Overtown and that many residents utilize Power U's services to help file their taxes — both signs, she said, of people making money.