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Miami Herald - Nov. 16, 2007

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Liberty City agency promises more affordable housing
On its first anniversary, the Liberty City Community Revitalization Trust has announced a plan to bring 1,000 residential units to the area within the next 18 months.

BY Jorge Valencia

Standing atop a new ceramic tile driveway in front of three freshly painted homes in Liberty City, the head of a community revitalization agency announced a plan to make more than 1,000 residential units available in the next 18 months.

Elaine Black smiled as she spoke about the work of the Liberty City Community Revitalization Trust, successor to a troubled group that was founded in 2002 to create affordable housing opportunities in the area but built only eight homes in four years.

The question now is whether the group, which replaced the Model City Revitalization Trust, is succeeding at bringing back and keeping more professional and working class residents in a depressed neighborhood that has suffered from riots and crime.

''We have projects moving that we were not moving before,'' said Black, director of the trust. 'This is a beautiful neighborhood. . . . but we have a lot of crime and negative perceptions. We want to change our neighbors' perceptions.''

Since November 2006, the trust has implemented tactics in Liberty City to reduce crime and beautify the area, Black said. Through one program, Keep Miami Beautiful, the trust organizes volunteers to remove trash from streets and parks and encourage residents to report illegal dumping.

So far, she said, the trust has helped build and sell 14 homes.

Soul Lives in the City, which the trust launched in cooperation with the Carrie Meek Foundation on Nov. 5, is its most ambitious effort yet. It's aimed at creating more than 1,600 residential units and bringing more people to Liberty City, Little Haiti, Overtown and Wynwood during the next two years. Liberty City is the first focus.

The three new homes Black and other public officials presented to the public on Northwest 58th Terrace between 15th and 17th avenues were part of the Soul Lives in the City initiative and symbolize progress, Black said. Not long ago, the lot was run down and filled with trash. Now the grass was green and lawns neatly trimmed. Black called it ``Dream Street.''

To get people to stay or come back to the area, Soul Lives in the City will include credit counseling and home ownership workshops, advertise in the media and get the word out through local organizations, said Anthony Williams, director of the Carrie Meek Foundation.

''You can physically see the area transforming in a good way,'' said City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, whose district includes Liberty City. ``Houses are being built and people are moving in them. . . . We had abandoned lots and now you have houses and people moving in.''

Between 2002 and 2006, mismanagement plagued the forerunner, Model City Revitalization Trust, according to an audit the city of Miami released in 2006. Developers were overpaid and homes were sold to people who didn't qualify as low income.

During the past year, some residents began efforts to take back land from developers who, some said, were desecrating their neighborhoods. At the same time, some developers lost faith in public incentives for development in Liberty City.

Spence-Jones said with the restructured trust there is more cooperation between the private and public sectors that will renew confidence.

''That was the real big piece that was missing,'' she said.

Now some developers say affordable homes wouldn't be built in Liberty City without the active help of the trust and city administration.

Gaita Enterprises, a California and New Jersey development company, is building condominiums on Northwest 59th Street between 12th and 13th avenues.

The homes, with price tags starting at $165,000 have home security and energy conservation features to save owners money.

''It exceeds the standards of living and it's improving the quality of life,'' said Sam Gaita, president of Gaita Enterprises. ``It's a feel-good job and definitely there's some income for us.''

Black said the trust is still in the beginning phases of its work.

Next to the three homes that were unveiled there is a duplex with bare cinder block walls in the process of being built.

''We've begun to scratch the surface. People are moving in,'' Black said. ``I want to make sure [Liberty City] is a nice place. I want people to come back to our community to live. . . . It happens one person at a time.''