County commissioners brace for fight over housing agency
By Ted Carter
Miami-Dade commissioners went into lock-and-load mode Tuesday in their dealings with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development over control of the county's housing agency.
The county has been trying for several weeks to talk the federal government out of taking control of the county's long-troubled housing agency. But with Tuesday's 6-2 commission vote, the talking may stop and litigation may begin.
The motion introduced by Commissioner Dennis Moss and passed by the commission directs staff to "vigorously defend" the commission's right to administer the housing agency.
Mayor Carlos Alvarez was on hand to push for a tough stand. "We've done everything humanly possible to reach an agreement," the mayor said of a series of talks he and other county officials have had with Department of Housing officials in Washington.
Tell the feds, he told commissioners, ""If you want to take it, try it. We'll see you in court."'
County negotiators had been under direction from the commission to seek a deal with the federal agency without ceding control of the housing agency. That inflexibility was not helpful, said Commissioner Carlos Gimenez, who joined Commissioner Javier Souto in opposing legal action.
"Negotiations haven't been able to move to middle ground," Mr. Gimenez said. "I would hope they would try to reach an accord. I don't think we have given you the tools to reach an accord," he told county negotiators. "If we fight, I think we're going to lose."
So does Mr. Souto. "Guys, don't fool around with Washington," he said.
Mr. Gimenez said he "is not so keen" on having the county maintain control of a housing agency that has let millions of dollars disappear and failed to produce much housing for the poor. "I wouldn't have major heartburn" over Washington seizing control, he said.
Neither would Mr. Souto, who said he lost faith in the local housing agency after it failed to deliver on a pair of housing developments in his district.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development has put 11 housing agencies around the country under receivership — including agencies in San Francisco, New Orleans, Boston and Kansas City, according to County Attorney Murray Greenberg, who said he thinks Miami-Dade may be the only one controlled by a county's governing body. Most, he said, are run by boards independent of local elected officials.
Mr. Greenberg said the county could face a tough fight. "I'm not promising success," he said. "The federal government is a powerful entity — they have the guns and the bullets."
The majority of commissioners say they fear that losing control of the housing agency could cost the county ownership of housing assets the federal agency helped fund. "They can take control of the assets, they can sell the assets," Mr. Greenberg said.
Cynthia Curry, special assistant to County Manager George Burgess, said US housing officials would be able to nullify contracts the local agency has made and could turn management of assets over to residential management companies or non-profit organizations.
Commissioners contend the county has made long strides in fixing problems with the housing agency and has put more professional managers in place there. "We need to stand our ground," Mr. Moss said.
"If we don't succeed and can't turn the agency around, I'll gladly join everyone and say to federal HUD: "Here, take the agency.' But we're not at that point," Mr. Moss said.
Commissioner Barbara Jordan said she could see a scenario in which the Department of Housing mandates that all federally subsidized housing in the county more than 40 years old must be demolished. With federal officials in control, she said, there'd be nothing the commission could do about it. But, she said, "the public would hold us responsible."
Another consideration, said Mr. Moss, is the commission's responsibility to maintain the authority voters gave it. "We need to stand our ground."