After years of construction, community meetings, fears of displacement and much skepticism, some Liberty Square families will be the first to experience a new standard of living in the resurging Liberty City neighborhood.
On Monday, Liberty Square residents, along with county, city and federal officials celebrated the completion of phase one of the “Liberty Square Rising” project, a unique development that features units of public and affordable housing, as well as market rate and homeownership units.
On Saturday, Sharon Gregory received the keys to her new apartment, a quaint unit complete with new appliances, intercom and hurricane-proof windows. Tears swelled her eyes as she showed off her new kitchen. She never thought that day would come.
For 17 years, she was used to the violence, shootings, neglected and dilapidated housing characteristic of Liberty Square. When she first heard the plans to revitalize the area, she was skeptical and brushed off the idea of living in a new, clean public housing apartment.
“‘I promise, I promise,’ that’s what we heard for a year or two,” Gregory said. “But they kept their promises.”
One of the many fears for the public housing residents was not being able to come back to the renovated units once the project was completed. County leaders and developers explained the relocation process at community meetings and by visiting residents to assure them they had the right to return to their units upon completion. In the meantime, residents were relocated to rehashed units in other parts of the Liberty Square neighborhood.
“It was worth it,” said Gregory of the relocation process.
Liberty Square Rising is a collaborative effort between Miami-Dade County, City of Miami and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development designed to provide a catalyst for neighborhood revitalization in the Liberty City area. Built 1937 under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Liberty Square is the oldest public housing project in the southeastern United States. Many generations have called the development home.
Phase one features six new buildings at 6512 NW 14 Ave., made up of 204 total units, 73 of which are public housing apartments and 131 non-public housing such as market. The $46 million first phase was funded through a combination of county, city, state and federal dollars.
Albert Milo, president of Related Urban Development Group, the developer said to date the group held over 70 community meetings. He said that's the most the company has done for any project. He used the meetings to hear residents' concerns and made them part of the vision of the project.
“The biggest thing was listening to the community,” said Milo. “That was our biggest mission; the community understands that we listened to them and their concerns,” he said.
County and city leaders believe the completion of phase one of the project marks the renaissance of Liberty City. Liberty Square is also known as the Pork 'N Beans, a derogatory allusion to poverty, symbolizing that the residents could only afford to eat pork and beans instead of other types of foods closely associated with wealth, such as steak and lobster.
“I’m going to do my best to end the “Pork ‘N Beans” stigma,” said County Commission Chairwoman Audrey Edmonson, who grew up in the area. "I will not be calling it that. The whole entire development will be built on the premise of decreasing crime.”
The buildings are designed in open fashion that will maximize residents’ visibility of the area. Residents will have secured access to the buildings and visitors will be required to check in with security office before entering the apartments, according to Milo.
Miami-Dade Police Department will assist Miami Police in securing Liberty Square, which is a federal housing project, located in the City of Miami and managed by the county's housing department. The plan, called “brown and blue” referencing the color of each department's patrol uniform, puts both agencies together to help cut down crime, gun violence and improve policing, Edmonson said.
Earlier this year, Miami leaders announced the city had a historic low in homicide crimes at a conference in the Liberty Square Community Center. Miami Police said overall, residents in Liberty City and other areas are offering tips, to which they say partly helped lower the homicide rate.
The Liberty Square rebuild includes units for sale.
“Homeownership brings pride in the neighborhood,” she said. “The community itself will make [residents] do what they are supposed to.”
Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon, who represents Liberty City, echoed those sentiments.
“We are inviting new people to live in this community and that is special,” Hardemon said. He believes public housing sites benefit and need support from other kinds of income. “That’s what you need in order to build a better community,” he said.
Secretary of HUD Ben Carson, who attended the grand opening, said the project could become a model for housing developments around the nation.
“I came down here because I wanted to see the progress that was being made and it is overwhelming,” he said.
Carson added that it’s an example of “lifting people out of poverty and into the American Dream.”
He said the mixed public and affordable housing model will help "change the atmosphere" of the area.
Phase two of the project is set to begin later this month and phase three will begin at the end of the year, Milo said. Overall, 1,455 mixed units of public and affordable housing will be created by 2023 with a total development cost of $300 million.
The City of Miami recently rezoned in the area to allow a supermarket and commercial spaces, Hardemon said. "It gives us an opportunity for businesses to come in and thrive," he said.
Gregory said she has come a long way from the roaches and poor infrastructure of her old house. Her rent of $147 a month, however, will stay the same.
“I look forward to enjoying life and enjoying my brand new apartment,” she said.