Friday, July 27, 2007

Umoja Rising Story- Miami Herald

Activists for homeless closer to getting site for housing

The Umoja Village activists are one step closer to winning the land where their Liberty City shantytown once stood so they can develop it as transitional housing for the homeless.

The Miami City Commission passed a motion late Thursday night to support a project called Umoja Rising, that would be built in partnership with Carrfour Supportive Housing, a Miami-based organization with a track record.

The commissioners stopped short of conveying the land at the corner of 62nd Street and Northwest 17th Avenue to the group. That step will come up at a commission meeting Wednesday after the Umoja proposal is hammered out between city staff and the activists.

Opposition could come from other developers of affordable housing and homeless housing, because the city-owned land would not be put out to bid to give all interested builders a chance to compete.

But several commissioners said other land has been conveyed without going out to bid to non-profit groups in the past, and the Umoja activists deserve special consideration.

Umoja Village was founded in October 2006 by community organizer Max Rameau, who took a page from the playbook of activists in Brazil, South Africa and Mexico and strategically selected a piece of public land to seize and give to ''the people'' after he became frustrated with the county's lack of response to the region's affordable housing crisis and allegations of mismanagement and possible malfeasance in Miami-Dade's public housing agency.

Rameau and the homeless built a community on the lot out of cardboard, wood and stubborn hope. They voted on rules, like evicting disruptive residents. They grew collard greens and spinach and cooked their own food. They planted sunflowers. College students donated enough books for a library. Social service agencies offered help -- and have placed about 30 former residents in permanent housing.

The government-owned lot at 6201 NW 17th Ave. was once the home of a building of affordable apartments. The apartments were bulldozed years earlier and new apartments promised for the poor never materialized.

For six months, the Umoja communal existence drew international attention. Then one night in April, a candle tipped over and the shantytown burned to the ground. No one was injured.

Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones has worked with the Umoja activists since the fire to come up with a plan to build housing for the homeless and other support services on the site.

''I know we aren't going to convey this land here tonight at 10:45, but I'd like to make a motion asking my fellow commissioners if they will support this when it comes back August 1,'' she said.

Commissioner Tomas Regalado pledged his support and praised Rameau. He said after last summer's expose by The Miami Herald of deep problems in the Miami Dade Housing Agency, Rameau could have gone home and written a letter to the editor.

''But instead he did another thing,'' Regalado said. ``He focused the attention nationally on this housing crisis here.... We have a lot of good things in Miami, but we can't hide our problems. And now because of Umoja and because of a newspaper, things are moving in the right direction.''

The commission unanimously passed Spence-Jones' motion asking for support of the Umoja proposal when it comes back Wednesday.

Take Back the Land, the Rameau group that founded Umoja, has formed a sister agency, Serve the People, Inc., which has a 501(c)3 non-profit application pending. The non-profit would serve as a landtrust and take ownership of the lots at corner of 62nd Street and Northwest 17th Avenue.

A preliminary proposal calls for $3 million in financing from the city and $7 million from Miami-Dade County. The bottom floor of the development would include some type of commercial space for small businesses and for social service agencies. The housing above would include a mix of transitional, low-income and possibly workforce housing, depending on what the Liberty City community wants.

Outreach surveys are being done by the Umoja activits to get community input.

The proposal from the activists says they would include a clause that would require the land and money to revert back to the city and county if malfeasance is found, or there is a general lack of progress in the development.

Rameau thanked commissioners for their pledge of support, and promised that the project, if approved, would meet the needs of those living in Liberty City and of any of the 44 Umoja residents who decide to return.

''It will meet the needs of the people already in the community, not the needs of people who want to come in and move out the people already there,'' he said.


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