Some friction, grumbling as Miami-Dade OKs application for federal foreclosure relief funds
By Risa Polansky
A vote to approve a proposal for federal foreclosure relief funds caused friction at a Miami-Dade meeting last week as some commissioners pushed to ensure their districts would see a share of the money.
The county is set to receive more than $62.2 million as part of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008.
Commissioners last week OK'd the application for the funding — due to the Department of Housing and Urban Development Dec. 1 — but not without some grumbling over where the money is to go.
The federal program requires the funds be spent in moderate-to-low-income areas with high foreclosure rates.
To identify Miami-Dade's "areas of greatest need," county planning and economy experts used a formula of the number of foreclosures, number of sub-prime loans and number of residents at or below 120% of the area median income.
The federal program requires it, they said.
The southern part of the county — namely, Commissioner Dennis Moss' southernmost district — is home to the most completed and pending foreclosures.
But there are needs in every district, some commissioners argued.
Joe Martinez, who voted against the measure, said he doesn't like the way it looks like the money will be distributed.
His West Dade district is burdened by a high number of pending foreclosures but doesn't seem to take high priority, he said.
"I think we're not going to be helping a lot of people."
Natacha Seijas, who represents much of Hialeah and Miami Lakes, agreed the plan doesn't address widespread needs.
The northern parts of the county are being ignored, she said.
"There are problems in district 13 and there are needs in district 13 that seem to be forgotten."
She said she was "not looking to be parochial" but felt she should raise the issue.
José "Pepe" Diaz, whose district includes Doral, Medley and Sweetwater, suggested submitting the application without maps marking target areas, allowing time to straighten out any distribution concerns.
"We're here to represent the county as a whole, but we also represent our districts," he said.
The administration maintained that officials marked the maps using hard data and that the federal government is requiring the county identify areas of need before doling out the money.
County Manager George Burgess reminded commissioners that they're only at the application stage of the process.
"How the money is spent after comes back to this board," he said.
Mr. Diaz insisted he did not intend to hold the county back from $62.2 million — he voted yes in the end — but lamented that "in my district I have received zero… I really don't want to hinder this, but I also have to take care of my district."
Similar tug-of-wars have been erupting since the mid-1980s.
Until then, voters elected commissioners countywide.
A federal lawsuit over whether minorities were adequately represented on the commission gave way to the current 13-district system, which has caused tension for years.
To get elected and re-elected, commissioners must focus on their district's wants and needs, which some say puts countywide issues in the backseat.
At the meeting last week, Commissioner Katy Sorenson of South Dade reminded commissioners that foreclosure — and how relief funds are to be allocated — is "not a district issue. It's more of a formula."
What's important now, Ms. Sorenson said, is to ensure the county clinches the federal funds.
"It may be a drop in the bucket, but it's still better than nothing."
Commissioners readily recognized that the $62.2 million will take only a small bite out of the county's foreclosure epidemic.
Over the last year, the county has seen 7,000 foreclosures. During the last four months, the foreclosure process has begun for 6,000 more homes, said Robert Cruz, the county's chief economist.
The $62.2 million is expected to impact only 578 housing units, according to the county's proposal for use of the funds.
In reference to the county's intention to acquire and rehabilitate 50 foreclosed single-family homes as part of the program, Ms. Seijas said that "50 houses even concentrated in one district is not going to make a difference."
Some industry players who commented on the program at the meeting were more optimistic.
The $62.2 million isn't much, but it's the most any locality in the US will see, said developer Albert Milo of the Urban Development Group.
And "I think the marketplace is going to allow you to do more" than anticipated in the proposal, he said. "It's a good first step."
Truly Burton, Miami-Dade County government affairs director for the Builders Association of South Florida, said: "I think we've come up with a plan that works" and stressed the need to hit the ground running once it's approved, as there's a federally imposed 18-month window to allocate program funds.
Commissioners' approval of the proposal last week was the first step.
Aside from the district tussle, they raised other concerns.
Commissioner Barbara Jordan urged officials to fight for the lowest prices possible to maximize the $62.2 million.
She requested a monthly report on what the county has purchased, where and for how much.
Commissioner Martinez noted that many of the foreclosed homes belong to "flippers," people who never intended to live in them.
"Are we going to bail out speculators?" he asked county officials.
Mr. Cruz told him "we don't have information as to who was flipping homes," but pointed out that foreclosed homes have been repossessed by banks, so the program takes homes off the hands of lenders, not the speculators themselves.
"I don't want to help the lender," Mr. Martinez said. "I want to help Joe and Pete and Paul who own a home."
Commissioners approved the proposal nine to two, with Mr. Martinez and Ms. Seijas dissenting and Dennis Moss and Javier Souto absent.
Should federal officials approve the proposal, the next step would be to lay out a plan to execute it.