Tarnishing of good names in housing probe is unaffordable
Written by Michael Lewis on June 27, 2017
Headlines trumpet affordable housing’s scarcity – yet some of those headlines deter more affordable housing.
As Miami Today has cited zoning to “encourage development of much-needed affordable housing” and civic groups’ calls for more, the daily press has been headlining a probe of “abuse and fraud in Miami-Dade’s troubled affordable housing industry,” listing developers who got county funding to add housing.
Frankly, affordable housing is scarce enough that Miami needs to spur developers to build more rather than label as federal suspects those who got government funds to build.
No official states what these developers are suspected of doing and no charges have been filed in this probe – if a probe of developers actually exists. The reports just besmirch the reputations of a dozen affordable housing developers, including a nonprofit that a chamber of commerce set up because we so badly needed homes for low-income families.
All of the developers got county funding to add housing, with all 13 commissioners having the same amount of money and each choosing those to do their work. There can’t be a worse way to add affordable housing than to have elected officials spread equal money around with each using different standards of selection.
If anything is to be investigated, it may be that method of spending. It never should have been done that way.
By naming recipients of that housing money as targets of an investigation that might never charge anyone with anything, however, 12 names have been smeared forever. Some of those 12 may well pull back from affordable housing.
After all, the big money has always been in open market housing, where developers have banked profits for years with nobody looking over their shoulders. Why risk a reputation by dealing with government?
In one reported instance, a developer saved the county money by working well under budget but still may have made too much profit. You’d think that saving the county money while providing quality housing would be valued, not rebuked.
But did anyone do anything illegal? Nobody is charging even one developer with anything bad – they’re just tossing out names and saying all of them are being probed. Those names will come up in Google searches forever as targets of a federal investigation – even if nobody is ever charged with anything.
When we directed law enforcement reporting, we never named anyone who was a target of an investigation or a suspect. We used names only after someone was formally charged with a specific crime. No charge, no name.
We did that for two reasons.
One, it’s only fair to allow a suspect to rebut a formal charge. None of these 12 developers can rebut a charge that doesn’t exist – but their reputations are tarnished nonetheless.
Two, police have long called people suspects who never will be charged. So, unfortunately, has some of the press. Some people wear a “suspect” label for decades with never a charge. There is no way to fight that.
Even if charges are filed, they might be dropped. And, even if someone is tried and acquitted, it’s rare that an acquittal is as well publicized as the charge. Again, reputations are tainted for life.
“Where there’s smoke there’s fire,” one friend commented about the probe of prominent developers.
But maybe someone’s just blowing smoke.
We’re not naïve. Several Miamians we’ve liked have been caught with hands in the cookie jar. Whether they’re developers or in government or in any other profession, those caught and convicted should face penalties.
But we have a long way to go before we consider ostracizing any of these affordable housing developers.
First, someone has to find that cookies are missing and why. If something is amiss, does a system that set up 13 different standards for developers make county government something more than an innocent bystander?
Then, if a problem indeed exists, those involved must be formally charged, tried and convicted. Today, they’re all innocent simply because nobody has been charged and then found guilty.
If a systemic problem lurks in affordable housing, fix it. If evidence shows someone is violating the law, file charges and name those charged. And don’t forget to prominently name them again if they are cleared.
Meanwhile, our civic organizations and local governments face an even greater burden in trying to induce construction and adaptation to vastly increase our supply of affordable and workforce housing. Developers today will be understandably skittish, and far more likely to use their skills for profitable marketplace housing.
The biggest losers in this case may well become the needy households that won’t reside affordably because we’ll be getting more luxury condos instead.