Miami is one of the most diverse cities in the world. It is a popular destination that attracts people like me with its warm weather and beautiful beaches. Miami is also a place where the wealthy are able to hide their money in overpriced luxury housing; where the people who call Miami home don’t make a livable wage ; where HIV/AIDS is infecting people like no other city in the US; and where corrupt politicians make underhanded deals with rich developers that slight local residents.
Enter: Overtown. A neighborhood once home to some of the most well-to-do black folks and businesses in the country. Today it has vastly changed from the historic place it once was. Homelessness, drugs, dilapidated housing, poor schools, and increased crime have taken over with many to blame: the dirty politicians who only worry about themselves, the federal housing policies that target vulnerable communities of color, and the local residents who have been misinformed.
I currently live in Overtown and work as a physician at Jackson Memorial Hospital. As a resident who works, organizes, and functions as a part of the community, I know the landscape quite well. From my viewpoint, Overtown is akin to any other neighborhood filled with black and brown residents across the country at war with gentrification. It is also not the only neighborhood in Miami that has been forced to make way for a wealthier population. The process of gentrification throughout this city did not happen overnight.
The gradual dismantling of Overtown started in the 1960s with the construction of the I-95 highway that cut through the historic neighborhood, causing many residents to move to other neighborhoods like Liberty City. This dismantling was accelerated with government policies that stifled local business growth, and it has been sustained by the creation of overt poverty through the deprivation of community resources. This lack of much-needed resources has led to decreased access to economic opportunities for Overtown residents, and these conditions directly gave birth to the public housing complexes that encompass the terrain. As downtown Miami and surrounding areas develop, gentrification has begun its infringement into Overtown. By pushing out the historic communities in places like nearby Wynnewood, local government has been able to raise property taxes and thereby change the demographics of that community to favor Whiter/higher income residents. And the violent cycle of gentrification continues. Overtown, like other communities of color across the US, has been silently under attack. The only difference is that our community will NOT go down without a fight. Dream Defenders, along with other local officials and organizations including Miami Workers Center, the church of Bishop Adams, and Senator Bullard, are riling up the neighborhood in preparation for a battle.
Nitin Motwani is the developer responsible for starting construction on a $1.7 billion project known as the Miami World Center in the heart of Overtown. The development has been described by some as “a city for people who don’t [even] live here yet”. According to David Smiley of the Miami Herald:
“Companies tied to master developer Miami Worldcenter Associates and The Forbes Company, the developer behind the 765,000-square-foot Mall at Miami Worldcenter, will get a 57 percent tax break through 2030, excluding the value of their land.
If both phases of the project are built, recent internal estimates show that will be worth $108 million in tax rebates over a dozen years.”
It should be mentioned that the Miami Community Redevelopment Association (District 5), created to invest property taxes into Overtown infrastructure, is handing over more than $100 million (an amount of money that has not been spent on the ailing community of Overtown in the last 10 years). As it stands, City Commissioner and CRA Chairperson Keon Hardemon would rather throw money (allocated to the community) at wealthy developers in hopes that it trickles down to the residents in the form of job creation and infrastructure. But the way that gentrification is set up, the people who live in the community now, my neighbors and friends, will NOT benefit from those long term economic principles if they are priced out of their homes or do not own the home in which they live.
Some may say that it is too late to stop the project from happening, but it is not too late to demand concessions on behalf of our community and to hold the developer accountable. Through a series of town hall meetings with various leaders and people who live in the community, we came up with a list of demands that should be added to the contract before construction starts.
We, the Overtown community, demand:
- Enforced local hiring, short term and long term- Enforcement in the contract terms for hiring of people from zip codes in Overtown, Liberty City and Miami Gardens. Without language of enforcement (fines) the developers can simply not comply with the word of the contract.
- A Labor Peace Agreement- the right for the workers (both construction and once venders come in) to form a union without intimidation should they desire.
- Free Community Wifi
- An Overtown Community Fund (20% of property tax revenue annually) - The Miami Worldcenter is applying for a Community Development District (CDD) with the county which will give them the ability to issue tax exempt bonds and tax future tenants up-to 5 mills(or taxing each purchaser of a condo up to $5 for every $1000 they spent on the property each year). Ex: person spends on average $1 Million (low estimate considering most of these will sell over $1M) on a property at the Miami World Center owes $5000 yearly to the CDD. If each unit sells for the same price and there are 500 units which sell out, this fund could be up to $2.5 Million yearly.
In their proposal, they outline where they will be spending this revenue (mostly infrastructure). To meet some of the community demands, the Worldcenter can amend their CDD proposal to include the creation of an Overtown Community Fund (OCF) that will be financed by CDD taxes. The fund should generate at least $500,000 annually. The OCF should fund programs that a) help at-risk youth, b) provide legal services, c) subsidize child care for single working parents and d) provide job training programs The programs should serve residents at 150% below the poverty line within the SEOPW CRA.
When we are successful, our exact wording will be added to the contract and will be enforced by auditors or else the developers will be fined larger amounts of money. On July 14th, the county commission will meet to vote on the contract and to give the developer the O.K. to use $60 million in tax-free bonds for starting construction the very next day. Dream Defenders has already sat down for an impromptu meeting with the developer days ago. The next meeting is with the Mayor of Miami. If the meeting does not go as planned, Dream Defenders and other organizations are prepared to launch six days of civil disobedience leading up to the July 14th vote. At the conclusion of this action, Miami will see that we choose people over profit.
And let this serve as both a blueprint and a warning for future Miami housing affairs. We would be remiss if we felt this was only about one small neighborhood. Miamians in Liberty City, Opa Locka, Miami Gardens AND Overtown will fight TOGETHER for their right to thrive in the communities that they call home WITHOUT the threat of gentrification. And there is POWER in numbers.
Armen Henderson, MD-MBA
For more info on this matter, please also visit: http://thenewtropic.com/overtown-past-future/ and http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/article20038665.html