Monday, July 31, 2006

The Real House of Lies: Government Causes Housing Crisis

As the housing crisis in Miami-Dade County, and across the country, mushroomed, with dire especially for Black and poor people, many expected local, state and even federal governments to step in to provide relief to the forced removals, high home prices and development run amok. Instead, governments have led the charge for zoning variances, high rise developments and sweetheart deals for politically connected developers.

The recent high profile media reports detailing the millions spent for affordable housing never built raises obvious questions about corruption and cronyism of elected and housing officials in Miami. However, the relationship between the actions of Miami-Dade Housing Agency (MDHA) and the red hot housing market raises deeper questions about who the government represents and their real role in the housing market.

Logic would dictate that during an affordable housing crisis, the local housing agency would create more affordable housing. However, in the mid 1990s, as the housing wait list grew to over 40,000 people, the exact opposite occurred: MDHA was actively eliminating affordable housing units.

Through HOPE VI, the Board of County Commissioners (BCC) voted over $100 million to raze 851 public housing units in Liberty City's Scott Projects and replace it with 450 overall units, including only 80 public housing units, and failed in a bid to similarly decimate the Liberty Square Projects. In 2002, as the crisis reached epidemic proportions, MDHA vacated over 1,000 units while the housing wait list swelled to over 63,000 people.

After months of actions, negotiations and outright begging, community groups such as the Miami Workers Center and LIFFT compelled the BCC to earmark $1.5 million just to fill the vacancies. One year later, however, the $1.5 million was spent, but the vacancies increased from 1,000 to over 1,700. The BCC continued to drag its feet, ignore pleas and outright refused to hear activists on the subject, at one point avoiding the agenda item with security forcing us from the Commission chambers. To this day, there is no accounting of the $1.5 million.

During the same time frame, the BCC awarded millions of dollars to politically connected developers, who never did get around to building affordable housing, but somehow managed to donate money to the re-election campaigns of the same commissioners who gifted them the contract.

The elected officials and even the mass media spin the facts, attempting to convince us there is nothing more going on here than incompetence and corruption, nothing that a few arrests can't solve. That, however, rests on the assumption that the role of the BCC and MDHA is to serve the interests of poor Black and Latino people. Nothing could further from the truth.

Does anyone really believe that none of the 13 elected officials, with their paid staff, and scores of housing agency professionals were unable to recognize the housing crisis? Or that they did not realize the solution was to build more affordable housing, not less? Or that the campaign contributors and friends were getting paid for doing no work? These are professionals and they knew exactly what they were doing.

Developers reap millions from the "housing boom," but the other side of that coin is the rising housing prices and gentrification of our communities, problems which many expect the government to address on our behalf. However, because government officials represent the interests of the developers, government actions have quietly, but deliberately, spurred gentrification and the housing crisis, not alleviated them.

Eliminating public housing, via either razing or vacating, reduces public affordable housing, thereby enabling private building owners, who are no longer competing with public housing, to raise rent prices at will. Government sponsorship, through zoning variances, tax breaks and other support, of certain projects, advance the gentrification of our neighborhoods.

So, don't believe the hype. The BCC and MDHA were not ineffective in serving the interests of the poor, they were effective in serving the interests of the rich developers. Even when a project is actually completed, the final product never seems to meet the needs of the residents. The reason is because the real objective of the project was to meet the needs of the developer, not the residents.

Far from failing because they did not alleviate the problems of the housing crisis and gentrification, the BCC was spectacularly successful in exacerbating those problems, to the benefit of the wealthy developers who profit from our misery. The MDHA scandal, then, is not a case of incompetence on their part, but rather, a case of naive expectations on ours.

So do not be fooled: this government does not represent your interests. Maybe its time we organize to get ourselves one that does.

Max Rameau is with the Center for Pan-African Development


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