Miami Today: “Commissioner calls for affordable housing summit”

To infuse new ideas into housing, Miami-Dade Commissioner Dennis Moss is calling for an “affordable housing summit” where decision-makers and experts can jointly target solutions.

On Monday, at the first Housing, Social Services and Economic Development Committee meeting, Mr. Moss, the chairman, said he also wants county departments to submit “reaching” ideas that “would really make a difference.”

“I’m asking people to think outside of the box, [and] I don’t want you to come with small projects,” he said. “For example, [I hope] our housing agency… will come back and say they’re prepared to build 10,000 units of housing this year.”

But no matter how much is built, Commissioner Jean Monestime said, land is finite and gentrification is pressing.

“The cry-out is very loud,” he said. “We have an unlimited amount of need but very limited… space.”

Commissioner Xavier Suarez recommended inviting “important other municipalities” – specifically Miami, whose voters in November 2017 OK’d a $400 million Forever Bond with $100 million for affordable housing and economic development.

Vice Chairwoman Eileen Higgins seconded that suggestion, adding that Little Havana in her district has the city’s highest percentage of natural affordable housing but could grow unaffordable as developers scoop up property.

She said she was also working with Public Housing Director Michael Liu to “co-collaborate” with the city in densifying county land in the city to add “more than 1,000 new affordable units.”

As skyrocketing costs and prohibitive down payments force young adults to remain at their parents’ home, Commissioner Joe Martinez said he was less optimistic.

“I know the feds have their own definition, but what is exactly affordable?” he asked. “I don’t know if we can tackle that, because supply and demand, and we do have a capitalist society.”

Miami Today: “Eileen Higgins: Brings her business experience to the county commission”

Eileen Higgins stays busy. The freshman Miami-Dade commissioner, now seven months into representing District 5, works long hours and makes it a point every week to visit all parts of her district, made up of portions of Miami, Miami Beach and unincorporated Fisher Island.

This year, in her first full legislative session, Ms. Higgins will serve on the Housing, Social Services and Economic Development; Transportation and Finance; and Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs committees, as well as the Community Disparities Subcommittee.

She is excited about all four assignments, she said, but is especially eager to work on two she asked for specifically, albeit for different reasons.

“Some of the strong leaders on the commission, who understand housing deeply and are the biggest advocates, will term out in 2020. I want to learn from them because I’ll be here in 2021, God willing,” she said. “On transportation, I provide a different perspective. I am a true transit rider in all its forms. I don’t just ride the train.”

Those issues and others she’ll address, she said, are intrinsic to improving the overall quality of life here, and she plans to use the diverse experience she gained prior to serving in elected public office in developing novel solutions to age-old quandaries.

“I tell people I have a split personality, but there’s only two,” she said. “I intend to approach things thinking about, ‘How do we make the economy grow?’ I have that business background. At the same time, [I ask], ‘How do we not leave people behind while we’re doing that?’ We can do both, and I have a career that’s proven that.”

Ms. Higgins sat down with Miami Today reporter Jesse Scheckner. The interview, recorded by Jahmoukie Dayle, can be found Friday at http://bit.ly/2uNHy0Q.

Miami Herald: “Road work on Flagler is mostly finished. Now merchants hope their businesses recover.”

Jorge Marrero looked out the window of his Flagler Street salon, a business he has run for 16 years, and wondered how much longer he could keep going.

In this building on the northwest corner of Flagler and 12th Avenue, one of several blocks ravaged by 2 1/2 years of disruptive construction work that is now largely complete, Marrero’s salon is one of a few storefronts with the lights on. Barely.

“I don’t have any savings left,” he said. A few feet away, a woman quietly eyed the reflection of her hairdresser, one of the few employees left at Siglo XXI Beauty Salon. “Not a penny.”

He hopes business will bounce back now that the mounds of dirt, heavy equipment and orange barriers that obstructed the walk to his front door are gone.

Merchants suffered as debris and unpaved dirt paths made it difficult for pedestrians, especially the elderly, to move around this working-class area. Customers who drove couldn’t find easy parking. Some storefronts were obscured by equipment and construction activity that blocked signs.

Now, there are several empty windows, some still caked with construction dust, with “for rent” signs displayed.

The roads are freshly paved, new drainage pipes are in place underground, and a new bike lane is open. Crews redid sidewalks and pedestrian ramps. Property owners and government officials said the upgrades were necessary, particularly the improved drainage to prevent flooding. But delays caused by weather and unexpected problems caused the project to drag on past deadlines.

A few lanes were coned off Monday morning as crews inspected storm drains and touched up the concrete on curbs. But the Flagler Street project is “substantially complete,” according to the Florida Department of Transportation.

The stretch of Flagler from Second Avenue to 14th Avenue is now open for business — though noticeably less business than before.

Marrero gestured toward the fresh asphalt outside the salon’s front door, where in 2017, front-end loaders and orange barrels framed a blue road sign that was supposed to help people find his business, Beauty Salon Unisex. He said he’s lost money, clientele and employees, leaving him feeling like he’s starting from scratch — a fact he hopes is not lost on politicians whom he expects to tout the completion of the job.

“Nobody’s come here to ask how we’re doing,” he said. “We haven’t received support from anybody.”

A small bit of relief has touched some businesses hurt by the construction. As part of a countywide small business grant program, Commissioner Eileen Higgins recently delivered checks ranging from $2,000 to $4,000 to about a dozen businesses on or near the blocks of Flagler that were rebuilt.

In a statement announcing the grants, Higgins acknowledged that it will take time and effort for the businesses to recover.

“We have much more to do to make this business corridor a thriving economic hub for these Mom and Pop shops,” she said. “Flagler has great potential, and I will continue to monitor progress on road, trash and transportation improvements until we collectively achieve our goal, which is to make Flagler a positive experience for those who work, live or do business there.”

Many businesses won’t have that chance. Delays prolonged the pain, frustrating business owners who expected work to be done sooner. The state, which hired Pinnacle Consulting to oversee the contractor on the project, Russell Engineering, has pointed to rain delays and unexpected issues with underground pipes.

Merchants anecdotally speak of a few dozen businesses that closed or were forced to downsize as a result of the construction. Marrero recalled a nearby restaurant that went out of business fast, and the owners left behind rotting food.

“We thought there might be a dead body in there,” he said.

Some kitchens are still open, but it’s a struggle.

“The businesses have deteriorated on this street,” said Olga Orllana, a server at Restaurant El Familiar. She witnessed the worst of the construction woes. “Nobody walked in. Who would walk in, with that mess outside?”