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At the recent US Social Forum in Atlanta, Miami Workers Center members marched with the Right to the City Alliance, which fights gentrification.
By Joseph Phelan
Miami Workers Center

In 2001, Miami Workers Center (MWC) and its grassroots organizing project LIFFT (Low-Income Families Fighting Together) successfully stopped the destruction of 750 units at Liberty Square Projects, affectionately know as the Pork n' Beans. We stormed the U.S. Housing and Urban Development building in Washington, DC and demanded that the HOPE VI grant be denied.

At the same time another HOPE VI grant had already been approved to demolish the historic James E. Scott and Carver Projects. With this demolition, 850 public housing units were to be destroyed and replaced with merely 80 units of public housing and town houses.

Utilizing the momentum of the victory at the Pork n' Beans, MWC/LIFFT began aggressively organizing to reverse the Scott Carver HOPE VI plan. Between 2002 and 2006 MWC and LIFFT were able to force some improvements in the plan through direct action, civil rights lawsuits, coalition work, and community awareness building. However, the county displaced all 1,129 families between 1999-2004 and demolished all but one building by 2006.

The displaced residents were scattered throughout the region and received little of their promised services. In an unprecedented housing boom, many residents were "lost" by the housing system that was supposed to look after their interests. An unholy pirate union between private developers, county commissioners, and agency bureaucrats ruled the day.

While grassroots members militantly fought this powerful alliance, the issue of Scotts rarely made it out of the African-American community.

Last fall The Miami Herald's series "House of Lies" publicly exposed the corruption and collusion between county government and private developers. It showed that tens of millions of taxpayer dollars for affordable housing had been stolen, misused or squandered. Scott Carver Homes was a glaring example of the scandal.

Even though the HOPE VI plan at Scotts was central to the county scandal and former residents were central to the coalition's fight, the county bureaucracy held fast to the original HOPE VI plan. There we erected a "Find Our People" name wall to list and find all displaced residents of Scotts. The county had lost track of over half of the displaced families.

In five weeks of activity the campaign located 240 Scott Families. The Scott site became a central gathering and networking place for displacees.

In the face of building momentum, the county moved to shut down the site. The result was a major stand-off between members and police, which resulted in a stand-down by the county administration. One week later on Valentines Night, the police came back, evicted members, and fenced off the site.

Meanwhile, USHUD was threatening to take over the local housing agency and put it into federal receivership. While the county attempted to demonstrate administrative improvements, undersecretary for Housing at USHUD, Orlando Cabrera, who is also heavily connected to Miami's powerful Latin Builders Association, seemed determined to force a federal takeover.

In this context, the newly hired head of MDHA, Kris Warren, reached out to MWC/LIFFT to dialogue about HOPE VI and the potential federal takeover. The result of these conversations is a historic breakthrough agreement, made on February 27, 2007.

The agreement is a huge step for self-determination of the poor African American community in Miami. It guarantees one-for-one replacement of low-income housing, the right to return for all displaced residents and broader community oversight.

With this accord, MWC/LIFFT entered a tactical alliance with leadership of county government to stave off a federal takeover.

This is one of the most significant housing agreements for low-income communities in Miami-Dade history. It also represents a potentially watershed moment for the predominantly African-American community of Liberty City. This could be a huge step in reclaiming the self-determination of the community, its land and reshaping the neighborhood in the interests of those who live there.

We are still fighting to make sure this agreement moves forward. In the ensuing months we have gotten over 100 displaced families re-housed and connected with services after the county had "lost" them.

We surely are not out of the woods yet, but we are moving, always moving forward.

This article originated in the People's Tribune
PO Box 3524, Chicago, IL 60654, 773-486-3551, info@peoplestribune.org.
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