The executive director of Miami Homes for All is trying to put a lid on an explosion in homelessness
Miami — Miami Activist Annie Lord arrived with her arms full.
Around her shoulder, she slung a purse and a briefcase bursting with paper and reports. In one hand, she gripped the strings of a pink box of pastelitos to serve during a donor presentation later that morning. In the other, she held rain boots – protection against forecasted afternoon storms.
As Executive Director of the non-profit group Miami Homes for All, Lord has a lot to carry. And while she was well prepared for rain, she’s actually much more worried about a different kind of storm.
“We are on the cusp of an explosion in people experiencing homelessness,” said Lord during a recent interview at her office at CIC Miami. Lord described a perfect storm that makes Miami one of the least affordable housing markets in America.
On one hand, we’re a community of real estate investors looking to maximize our returns through ever higher rents and property values. On the other hand, we’re a community of relatively low-paid service workers who spend a crushing percentage of our income on housing.
In Miami-Dade County, 49% of us who own our homes and 62% of us who rent our homes spend 30% or more of our income on housing. That makes most of us “cost burdened” by our homes and it means that Miami-Dade is one of the least affordable housing markets in the country, according to a study by the FIU Metropolitan Center.
Many of Miami’s financially strapped families already teeter on the brink of eviction or foreclosure and the situation is getting worse, according to Lord.
As examples, she cites the following statistics:
In the past 15 years, we’ve lost 8,000 subsidized affordable housing units as government assistance payments expire or as investors purchase properties and change the leasing structures. Rents keep climbing all over the county and are especially hard felt in places like Allapattah, Liberty City, Little Haiti, Little Havana and Overtown.
Perhaps most troubling of all: the number of Miami Dade school children who don’t have a safe, permanent place to live rose from 8,000 to 9,000 last year and is projected to leap to 14,000 this year, according to Lord.
“It’s traumatic for a child when they’re in constant transition as their families move around,” said Lord, who is a mother of two and can’t stand the idea of families with children moving from place to place, crammed into spare bedrooms or sleeping on couches and floors.
After graduating from Ransom Everglades, Lord went to Harvard, first earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Latin American history and literature and then a Master’s Degree in public policy and economic development. After Harvard, she learned the ropes at a variety of Latin-American and Latino focused non-profit organizations before becoming Executive Director of the South Florida Community Development Corporation between 2010 and 2012. She then moved to Dallas where she held the position of Vice President of Community Development for Citibank and then Chief Program Officer for CitySquare, a non-profit organization that manages a wide range of anti-poverty programs.
Today, Lord leads the professional team at Miami Homes for All, which as the name implies, is dedicated to ensuring that every Miami-Dade resident has a safe, stable home.
According to Lord, achieving that goal requires two things: preserving the affordable housing we have and building more of it. To help get that done, Lord sees her organization’s role as fostering partnership and close collaboration between the public and private sectors, including citizens groups, landlords, builders, public policy experts, government officials and other non-profit organizations.
She’s especially excited by a new online land-use database created by the Civic and Community Engagement office at the University of Miami. The tool is called, “LAND,” which stands for Land Access for Neighborhood Development, and was designed to identify and map all of the vacant or underutilized publicly owned land across the county’s 34 municipalities.
It turns out there’s quite a lot of it – more than half-a-billion square feet – much of it already zoned for residential use.
“This is our land. It belongs to the residents of Miami Dade County. So what are we going to build? We’ve never had that conversation as a community,” said Lord whose team is already analyzing what could be built where.
Over the past few months, Lord has been working with City of Miami officials to create an affordable housing blue print intended to ensure that government policies encourage building owners to keep their units affordable, motivate developers to build new units and attract capital from financial institutions. The City’s plan is slated to be announced in May and, if all goes well, Lord expects that a similar plan for the rest of the County will be completed by the end of the year.
Well-coordinated plans are clearly needed. The City’s blue print calls for building or preserving 12,000 affordable housing units by 2024. The County’s blue print will likely call for many thousands more.
In Liberty City, Related Urban, the Related Group development company’s affordable housing division, is at work on an affordable housing project called Liberty Square Rising. The project will replace 753 dilapidated houses, which were built more than 80 years ago, with 1,500 new apartments. Phase one, with 204 units, is nearing completion and residents are expected to begin moving in this summer.
The project has been designed to integrate people across the spectrum of low to moderate incomes and to incorporate residential areas with playgrounds, a community recreation center, grocery shopping, restaurants and other amenities.
Lord considers that a model for the future. Instead of segregating low-income housing out of sight on the fringes of a community, like the old Liberty Square project, she says the current Liberty Square project is a healthier concept that will build a stronger community.
“There’s no way to erase the past. But this project feels like a modicum of justice,” said Lord who was raised in Coconut Grove. Every day on her way to elementary school she drove through racially segregated areas of deep poverty. That daily ride has had a lasting impact.
“My parents taught me that everyone works hard. The only the only thing that made my situation different was my good fortune.”
Since those formative days, she’s been acutely aware of her relative privilege.
“I’m lucky,” she says.
“The fact that many good, hard-working people have a lot less…that bothers me.”