Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Umoja Village Burned Again


Less than one week after voting 4-0 to support the conveyance of land to the Umoja Village residents, city of Miami officials completely reversed themselves after a wealthy, high powered lobbyist unilaterally killed the entire deal. The political settlement won by Take Back the Land was scrapped as those with the real power vetoed the vote and maintained the status quo, to the benefit of those in power and at the expense of the black community.

The Umoja Village Shantytown stood for just over six months, directly feeding and housing people and challenging the notion that developers should control land in the black community, before it burned in a tragic fire on April 26, 2007. After the fire, the city offered the land to the residents and organizers of Umoja, in order to build supportive housing, a deal ultimately accepted by Take Back the Land.

The city was embarrassed and hostile towards the Umoja Village, however, overwhelming community support and attention forced officials to deal with the crisis. After months of planning and last minute wrangling, the city of Miami Commission voted to support the conveyance of the land to the residents and organizers. Technically, the vote approved of the idea, and ordered the city Manager to work out the details for a final and official vote in less than a week. The implications of the victory, which was now within grasp, for the black power and broader social justice movements are significant, a fact not lost on local gatekeepers and power brokers.

Just hours after the initial vote, the real powers-that-be went to work. Ron Book, one of the most powerful lobbyists in the state of Florida and operating as the chair of the Homeless Trust, employed his lobbying skills to kill the deal. He not only registered his opposition to city and county officials, but he intimidated the development partner, who depends on Trust for their funding. Equally as significant, he used his position as the chair of the Trust to threaten the funding. With the project funding gone- valued at up to $20 million- the development partner ready to bail, and elected officials on notice, the deal was effectively dead the very next day.

Book's justification for his stand was that no public land should be conveyed to an organization without a bid process, and that the Homeless Trust does not financially support no bid deals, even when legal and transparent and even when the Trust does not own the land in question. The obvious question arose: has Ron Book or the Homeless Trust ever supported a no-bid deal?

With Book, with multiple clients and a controversial professional record, finding instances of his support for numerous no-bid contracts was easy. More importantly, in February 2006, an apartment building located at 6000 NW 12th Ave., just seven blocks from the Umoja Village site, was conveyed to New Horizons for use as supportive housing, for free by the city of Miami in a no-bid process. In that virtually identical situation, the Trust supported the deal and continues to fund the project today. Not surprisingly, in addition to being the chair of the Homeless Trust, which directly funds New Horizons and others, Ron Book is also a paid lobbyist for New Horizons. He was paid no less than $40,000 by the non-profit organization in 2006, while making decisions about their contracts.

This information was brought to the Miami Herald, the local paper of record, including citations and public records proving the allegation. While a reporter supposedly worked on the story for at least four days, the story was never published.

The fact is that the black community built enough power to win a significant political victory at the city of Miami, the alleged decision making body. However, there are unelected forces with more power than lowly local governments, who make unilateral decisions without public hearings, and those powers have an interest in ensuring the black community cannot exercise self-determination. A wealthy white power broker and an unelected agency effectively vetoed the political settlement approved by a city government, a move with serious implications for the social justice movement and basic democratic rights.

This turn of events also confirms a truism of power: once a set of rules begin to benefit the people instead of those in power, those rules are subject to change.

In the mean time, the crisis of gentrification and low-income housing rages across Miami-Dade County and the US. We have an obligation to feed and house people in our community, and obligation which is only heightened by the refusal of governments to provide those services. Having failed at engagement with the system, Take Back the Land will continue to meet our obligations.


Max Rameau
Take Back the Land
a project of the Center for Pan-African Development

check out the chronology of events and longer pieces at or

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