After decades of squalid living conditions, one of the nation’s oldest public housing complexes is receiving an overdue transformation.
Liberty Square was the first housing project for blacks in America, finished in 1937 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of his New Deal. As the New Deal was a reaction to the Great Depression, the Liberty City Rising revitalization plan responds to the affordable housing crisis in Miami.
Four years in the making, Liberty City Rising is a milestone $46 million development that will raze 709 public housing units and redevelop 1,455 new ones as a mixed-income housing development.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Giménez and County Commission Chairwoman Audrey Edmondson inaugurated the completion of the plan’s first phase at the site of the development on Monday, with Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson as a guest.
Edmondson praised the “renaissance of part of Miami-Dade County that was once an epicenter for the black community.”
“This investment of Liberty City makes economic sense on all levels of the equation,” Giménez said. “In addition to providing beautiful affordable units, it promotes social justice in the region and helps spur job growth and business development.”
Phase one demolished 73 old units and replaced them with 204 new homes, featuring six garden-style buildings with new units for public, affordable, market rate, and workforce housing.
Of these, 73 are for public housing, including for the 54 families who already lived there. Families in transition have been given temporary housing in vacant units and the project is being completed in phases to avoid the displacement of current residents.
Giménez told WLRN that his message to residents is “we’re keeping our promises – you’re going to have a home you’re going to be proud of, you’re going to have a neighborhood you’re going to be proud of, and you’re going to have new neighbors, too.”
The subsequent phases to be completed in 3 to 4 years will feature the building of 40,000-square-foot grocery store and 15,000 square feet of mixed-use retail space. Residents living in phase one can already enjoy spacious, modern rooms with increased security systems and new furniture and appliances, while having no increased rent.
“This is marvelous, this is beautiful, this is speechless,” said Sharon Gregory, a Liberty Square resident of 17 years who said she was grateful to move into her new home.
Gregory said she didn’t believe this change would come when it was announced. In tears, she said she was glad that her pest-infested housing was gone, and that she had “nobody but Jesus” to thank.
“‘I promise, I promise, I promise’, that’s what we heard for about a year or two. They kept every promise,” Gregory said.
Liberty City Rising seeks to discourage violence – in part due to subpar housing – that has shaken the community for years.
Edmondson said she hopes to do away with the colloquial “Pork and Beans” title of Liberty Square and that the new housing and mixed-income residents will contribute to more security and decreasing violence.
“Residents have been promised that there would be improvements to the area but it never transpired, so when we were able to find some funding to get this done, they didn’t believe us,” Edmondson said.
The Related Urban Development Group took the lead on the $300 million Liberty Square development and secured a $23.1 million construction loan and $16 million in Low Income Housing Tax Credits from Bank of America for the project
Bank of America’s Community Development Banking intends to teach financial well-being and online banking to residents through Better Money Habits, a new financial literacy program.
The Related Group prepared a community benefits package that will include scholarships for students and apprenticeships for local businesses. In addition, 20 percent of its construction jobs go to section 3 public housing residents, amounting to 1,100 jobs, as well as 75 percent of post-construction jobs going to Section 3 residents, an estimated 250 jobs.
The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development invested $3.5 million in the project, an effort that Secretary Carson was enthusiastic about.
“I came down here because I wanted to see the progress that was being made and it’s overwhelming,” Carson said. “Yes, the federal government invested some dollars, but it is you people here in Miami-Dade that have made that happen and I think you have provided an example for the rest of the nation.”