Fall 2007 Issue
A team of BU students works to preserve the oral histories of those left in limbo by Miami-Dade's affordable housing crisis.
By Jasmine Kripalani
Caprice Brown remembers the days of living in the barracks-style James E. Scott and Carver housing projects as generally good times. People often had birthday parties for their children on the grassy courtyard, one couple even tied the knot there.
As a single mother of three, Brown said life in the projects in the Central Miami area known as Liberty City also had its share of problems, drug- and gang-related violence chief among them.
"But you have that everywhere," she said.
Facing a camera in a sparsely furnished conference room at The Miami Worker's Center, a nonprofit organization representing the interests of low-wage workers, Brown told her story to five Barry University students who compiled oral histories as part of their senior class project. Brown was among six former project residents who spoke on camera about their struggle with the Miami-Dade Housing Agency. Officials there promised her and other residents that the 850-unit housing project would be demolished and replaced with vastly improved residences. But seven years have passed, and Brown and many other former residents of the housing project, generally referred to as Scott-Carver, are still waiting on those homes.
Home, sweet home
"The housing issue has been at the forefront of what most community-based organizations and agencies have been working on for some years," said Chair of the Department of Sociology and Criminology Dr. Karen Callaghan, who oversaw the students' work. "In looking for a community-based project that focused on social problems, it was obvious that housing and hence poverty were primary concerns."
Callaghan divided the 20 students into five teams. Each focused on a different aspect of affordable housing from the history of gentrification in Miami to the role of government.
One team of students worked with The Miami Worker's Center. The center needed someone to record the oral histories of former project residents.
Enter five BU students who drove to the Center at 6127 N.W. 7th Ave. once a week for five weeks with a camera, a set of spotlights, laptops and notebooks.
Among them was criminology major Cliff-Pierre Antoine, 21.
He interviewed Lee Lipscob who was forced to live in her truck with her two young children after she was evicted from her unit at the Scott-Carver projects. She had been on a waiting list for 27 years before she was assigned a unit.
Lipscob, an African-American, was born and raised in Florida. Her family had a small farm in Homestead where they made just enough to get by growing squash and tomatoes.
When Lipscob left her parents' house, she had her own growing family. She had 17 children and is still raising an 11- and 12-year-old. Ten of her other children live in their own apartments and five have passed away. After living out of her truck, they eventually found a duplex not far from the former Scott-Carver residences.
But she fears for her children's safety there.
"If you do let your kids outside to play," Lipscob said, "people are shooting and everything. I just pray and hope that they really don't get hit with a bullet."
Like many Scott-Carver residents, Lipscob said she learned of her impending eviction by word of mouth. She said that she never received any written declaration of the county's intentions. Others said they received one on Christmas Day.
Fighting ‘city hall'
Meetings were held about the evictions and many promises were made, which never amounted to anything concrete, she said. One day, Lipscob said she returned home from her $250-a-week job to find that her front door and windows had been boarded up and her belongings had been moved to another location — without her consent or knowledge.
In 2001, the county ordered the demolition of all 850 units at the Scott-Carver projects on the 7200 block of Northwest 22nd Avenue.
After her eviction, Lipscob said that the county did not provide her with any services.
Since that time, she has become intensely active in trying to improve her housing situation as well as the situation of other displaced Scott-Carver residents. She eventually made it to the commissioner's office and voiced her complaint. But nothing came of it.
"These people were not going to allow themselves to be taken advantage of. People think that because they're poor or not as well educated that they won't fight for what they believe in and what they feel is fair," Antoine said. "The Scott-Carver residents proved the opposite. They made it to the city council meetings, they petitioned the mayor and did everything they could to remedy their situation."
By January of 2007, however, $22 million had been spent and only three homes had been constructed, The Miami Herald reported in its Pulitzer-Prize winning series, "House of Lies." The series, which began to appear in the fall of 2006, focused on the county's mismanagement of funds and corruption.
"You read about it in the paper, but it doesn't affect you as much. Seeing who this affects brings a whole new perspective on what should be done," said Jacob Ely, 21, a criminology student working on the oral history project.
Although past experience has taught her to be skeptical, Lipscob welcomed the news of the agreement between the Miami Worker's Center and the Miami-Dade Housing Authority in February to replace all 850 units and give former residents first priority.
Ely and Alphin "Michael" Watts, 23, a broadcast communication major and aspiring independent filmmaker, helped to record the oral histories and to edit a 20-minute student-produced documentary titled "Broken Promises." The documentary, which the students produced in addition to their regular assignments, included stories from former residents, clips from local television news stories and interviews with housing experts.
"I was surprised by the corruption of the government," Watts said, "and who they stole the money from. These people needed it more than they did. What surprised me the most was that people were on a waiting list to live in a shanty town."
Trusting ‘the man'
During two town-hall style meetings in mid-April, Barry University students presented their findings to other students, faculty and residents from Umoja Village, a former shanty town in Liberty City.
The students found three definitions of gentrification, from the dictionary standard of displacing poorer residents to make room for the middle or affluent populations to County Commissioner Jimmy Morales's public comments on the topic in 2003.
"To many, gentrification means easing the stress of lengthy commutes and isolated suburban living," Morales said in a meeting. "To others gentrification brings up a renewed interest in economic development and capital investment in areas that have suffered suburban flight."
It's a quote that "illustrates how the interests of residents of the poor communities, which are usually the location for gentrification projects, are very often forgotten and ignored." Callaghan said.
Another of the student teams that participated in the meeting explored the role of government in providing access to affordable housing. Criminology major and recent graduate Courtney Boynton, 22, said she was disappointed by the way elected officials handled the affordable housing crisis in South Florida.
But, she added, other parties shared the blame.
"My group members felt the city commissioners weren't doing all they could do. Some of them tried to push the issue of affordable housing, and other commission members didn't have that on their priority list," said Boynton, who sat in on three Miami city commission meetings this past spring. "We found that everyone was at fault on this issue. Lawyers delay trials of people who misused funds; [the federal Housing and Urban Development] is to blame for not overseeing the funds."
At one of those presentations, students and faculty also heard from the people directly affected by the governments' actions: residents of Umoja Village. In November of 2006 vacant public property at 62nd Street and Northwest 17th Avenue became home to 47 formerly homeless people, including several former Scott-Carver residents. Each lived on a 48-square-foot area covered by plywood, cardboard and blue tarps. Two people were on a waiting list for the shacks.
Umoja Village, which means "unity" in Swahili, was in existence for six months before it burned down this past April.
Earl Erring, 65, was among those living at Umoja Village. He spoke at the April 19th presentation. He had a house in Atlanta with his family, but his drug dependency got so bad that he lost his home.
"In many ways, I'm grateful to be there," he said of living at Umoja Village at the time. "I also have a drug problem and I know I have to get help. Still, it's good to have your own place. I don't like being in this situation, but it teaches me about life."
Brown also spoke that evening.
In 2001, Brown said she accepted Section 8 housing vouchers, which subsidized her rent. But she lost that voucher when she missed one appointment with the county housing agency.
She was kicked out and now lives in another public housing unit in Miami's Edison Plaza in Liberty City, but said that she's determined to find something better.
"I don't put my trust in man. I'm a big believer in God," she said in her speech.
To prevent her students from feeling discouraged by their government, Callaghan said she would remind them that human beings are behind the decisions and corruption will sometimes play a role.
"You don't want [the students] to get so discouraged that it turns them off from doing work in the community," she said. "I deal with it like any other disappointment. You don't accept it, but you go along with it as a challenge that you're going to have to confront."