The Lies we tell Underprivileged Communities: The Façade of the Community Redevelopment Agency in the City of South Miami

by: Brittany Thomas

Marshall Williamson is a neighborhood in within the City of South Miami. The area is named after Marshall Williamson, an early African-American settler of South Florida. [1] The neighborhood is one of the first African-American communities in South Florida and maintains the African-American heritage today. In 1997, after years of neglect, the City of South Miami designated the Marshall Williamson community a blighted area and established a Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) with the purpose of “revitalizing” the community. [2]

The CRA and the City of South Miami signed an interlocal agreement outlining their duties and enacted bylaws to control the powers of the CRA. [3]Once the CRA began to function, it was clear that it was going to be no help for the Marshall Williamson community. First, according to the bylaws, drafted by the City Commissioners, the City commissioners were to be the board of the CRA. Community members were concerned and rightfully so. How could the same commission, which neglected their community for decades, be trusted to run the agency created to help them? [4]Unfortunately, the City Commissioners are allowed to run a CRA and in fact, this is a practice seen all over the State of Florida. [5]

After years of no movement, the CRA began purchasing property and tearing down affordable housing units, with the promise of building more. According to the interlocal agreement, the City of South Miami cannot diminish the amount of affordable housing within the CRA and if they must demolish affordable housing, that housing must be replaced unit for unit. The City has demolished units of affordable housing within the CRA boundaries and has failed to replace them. Even when developments are put forward to replace the housing, they never come to fruition.

One development in particular is known as Madison Square project. The Madison Square affordable housing project has been promised to the Marshall Williamson community for over 20 years. With the creation of the CRA many thought that it would finally be built. The City commission and the CRA board have ensured that the project will never occur. For the development to move forward the City was required to pass several zoning and variance changes. Instead of passing them, they changed them all together. Where the City had agreed to allow development of 75 units, they now thought that anything over 40 was not going to work. The sudden changes require the contract with developer Green Mills to be re-written. [6]

Green Mills, LLC accepted the unreasonable requests so the City found a different way to halt the project. The City and the CRA sent a list of unreasonable and unlawful requests to the developers. One such request from the City was to have final approval over every lease granted in the Madison Square development. The City wanted to approve the person, the term of their stay, and the conditions upon which the leases would be granted.[7] Green Mills notified the City that the requests violated the Fair Housing Act and backed out of the Madison Square deal three days later.

There have been, however, mixed use, high density development approved by the City commission- Red Road Commons and Valencia. In the creation of both projects affordable housing units were promised. Now, one bedroom apartments in Red Road commons starts at $1200. The only high volume affordable housing unit that has been built is Metro South. Metro South contains 91 units and is for residents of 55 or older. While Metro South is an area of praise, only 11 Marshall Williamson residents were able to obtain a lease in the units. This is due to the fact that the City based its determination of affordable on the City of South Miami as a whole and not just Marshall Williamson. Given that the median income in South Miami is $63,289 and the median income of Marshall Williamson is only $14,000 it is clear why they were unable to rent the units. [8]

Recently, the City Commission has launched an attack on the CRA. The CRA has four employees. These employees help community members, promote mentorship for children, and run a community center in the City of South Miami. In November of 2016, the several city commissioners presented a resolution that would terminate the entire staff of the CRA. The funds would be diverted and put towards the nonexistent Madison Square Project. The CRA staff is comprised of Marshall Williamson residents. Without the staff, the community will lose its last line of defense against the City of South Miami.

The motivations of the City are clear. In 2020 the CRA will sunset, meaning it will dissolve and will no longer be an entity within South Miami. All of the property, funds, and bonds held by the CRA will fall into the hands of the City. Once the CRA is gone there is no interlocal agreement stopping the City from selling the property and making a profit. Without the CRA designation, the Marshall Williamson community is free to be gentrified and what remaining African-American community members will surely be pushed out.

[1] Donna Shelley, MARSHALL WILLIAMSON – The “Little Mayor of South Miami, Somi Magazine

[2] SOUTH MIAMI, FL., ORDINANCE 12-97-1633 (1997).

[3] S. Miami Cmty. Red. Agency Bylaws (2004); see also, S. Miami Cmty. Red. Agency Interlocal Agr. (1999).

[4] Statement of Bishop Larry Jones, President of Concerned Clergy & Citizens Coalitions, Bishop within South Miami. Statement of Dr. Price, Board member of Center for Ethics & Public Service at the University of Miami.

[5] Fla. Att’y Gen. Op. 98-36 (June 1, 1988).

[6] See Butler, Alex, South Miami Residents say Madison Square Affordable Housing Delays are Commonplace, Miami Herald, Oct. 20, 2015; see also Butler, Alex, South Miami Mulls Next Stage of Affordable Housing Dilemma, Miami Herald, July 23,2015.

[7] Email from David, Stephen, Director of S. Miami Cmty. Red. Agency to author (February 2, 2017)(On file with author).

[8] Id.

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