Homestead Gardens at 1501 SW 6th Street, to the west of Blakey Park, has a lot of serious problems. Residents claim the units are filled with mold, broken appliances, bad plumbing, and sewage leaking from buildings.
Homestead City Council was presented with the issue of County renovation of public housing in the southwest neighborhood at its Council meeting on December 15.
The County Public Housing and Community Development Department proposes to tear down and replace the buildings on the 8.7 acre property as part of a public/private partnership program.
There are six buildings in Homestead Gardens. The first three buildings of 150 units would be demolished and replaced with taller structures containing 301 modernized units. Developer DBC Procida partnered with the County to build a mixed community of subsidized public housing and Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program units where middle-income residents pay an increasing percentage of their income in rent.
County Department Director Michael Liu was appointed in 2014 to manage the County’s 30,000 low and moderate income units plus subsidized Section 8 housing for 16,000 families. He formerly served as a U.S. Assistant Secretary of HUD from 2001-2005 where he implemented a market-driven public housing program attracting private sector investment.
“This is part of a larger plan to deal with the public housing crisis faced in the County, totally funded by the federal government,” Director Liu told Council. “The government doesn’t have the capacity to fund and maintain housing at a level we need.”
The County asked Homestead to amend its comprehensive plan increasing density to thirty-five units per acre from the currently permitted ten units. The change would only apply to three government-owned properties in the City.
The private developer’s representatives painted a picture of new units full of amenities like washers and dryers, balconies with street views, cameras and security throughout, ceramic tile backsplashes, modern flooring, oversized windows, and individually controlled air conditioning.
Qualified public housing residents pay no rent. Affordable housing residents can pay from forty to eighty percent of their income for rent. The new units start with one bedroom apartment rents of $945 a month to three bedroom units at $1770.
To accommodate residents, rebuilding would be done in two phases with residents moved to vacant apartments until demolition and construction is complete, and then a final move to new units to avoid complete relocation.
“I’m excited about the added amenities, but it would not be hard to do better than what’s there,” said Councilmember Jenifer Bailey. “Families are still struggling to get maintenance crews there regularly. I would like some reassurances the neglect won’t continue.”
Director Liu said the work order system is improving. “Three years ago it had 7,000 orders per day. Now it has a few hundred (maintenance) orders but that’s still not acceptable,” he said. “With special challenges, we can put people in hotels at our expense until it’s corrected.”
Councilmember Sean Fletcher asked about air conditioning. Director Liu said HUD doesn’t require air conditioning anywhere in the country for public housing. “It’s a terrible policy but that is the federal policy; I couldn’t get Congress to change it,” he said.
“That’s a hard sticking point for me,” Councilmember Fletcher said. “Air conditioning is a basic human necessity in south Florida. You need to up the standards even with money problems.”
“Who manages this property?” Councilmember Larry Roth demanded. “They haven’t been doing a very good job. I suggest you make an appointment with Bailey and go look at these units and see how people are living down there.”
“They have raw sewage bleeding out of the buildings!” Roth continued. “That’s not acceptable! I’m for this transformation of properties but you’ve got two years to do this project and there are people living there in inhumane conditions, suffering because of County mismanagement.”
Councilmember Erica Avila added, “I’m outraged! I’ve walked that property with Councilmember Bailey. These are humble people. I’ve knocked on doors and not one of them complained. This is ridiculous! Where are our County Commissioners on this?”
“We’re told there is no money to come down here and buy-down units,” Mayor Steve Losner said. “Not all of this is your fault, but historically that County housing unit is incompetent at best, unethical and corrupt at the other end of the spectrum. To allow these conditions to exist is reprehensible.”
“My concern is Homestead is asked to absorb triple the density because the County is so far behind,” Losner added. “Increased density but zero tax revenue to the City and no offers to offset these impacts.”
County staff said a mixed income community would have balance and better “livability”. The rebuilding would replace 2600 feet of water pipe, the entire sewer system, and create energy-efficient units.
City staff arranged a walking tour of Homestead Gardens for the next day so County staff could view the conditions.
Council ultimately voted seven to zero to approve the increased density for the comprehensive plan. The rezoning resolution was approved six to one, Losner voting no.
Director Liu responded to Mayor and Council by letter the next day, again apologizing that “deferred maintenance due to fiscal constraints made this redevelopment so important”.
“(The Department) is ready and prepared to offer voluntary relocation to any current resident of Homestead Gardens due to unit conditions in need of significant repair,” Liu’s letter said, repeating his comment to Council.
In addition, Liu’s staff scheduled a residents’ meeting Tuesday, December 21 to advise people about relocation options and plans for redevelopment.
The County letter stated RAD residents retain a right to return and continued rent payments at their adjusted income setting. Residents are expected to be involved throughout the process with both the developer and the Department.
“Finally, RAD will deliver a brand new $100 million development to Homestead that replaces a property that has outlived its useful life,” Liu’s letter said.
After the Council vote, Mayor Losner commented that they’d see during the February second reading how far along things were with the County and Homestead Gardens.