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Category: Politics, Economy

Ground Zero of the Housing Crisis: Report from Miami

| July 16, 2008

As the Bush administration unveiled a publicly financed plan to "save" mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, local residents at a town hall forum in Miami were calling for criminal prosecutions of the loan-shark mortgage brokers and investment firms that profited from poor people's housing despair.

It would be hard to think of a better place to hold a public forum on the housing crisis and sustainable development than Overtown, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Miami, Florida. While Overtown is just minutes from downtown geographically speaking, it's worlds apart economically and culturally.

On Saturday, The Lyric Theater was host to the second of the five-part nationally broadcast town hall series, Live From Main Street (LFMS). Hundreds of community members gathered to talk about how massive foreclosures, bad loans and gentrification had impacted their city—and what could be done about it—in a town hall forum dubbed, "Magic City; Hard Times."

Miami is widely known as “ground zero” for the national housing crisis. "Miami's the canary in the coal mine of our economy," Gihan Perera, executive director of the Miami Workers Center, a local organizing group, told the engaged crowd. "In terms of rich versus poor, uneven development, the impact of global trade and immigration, Miami is the cutting edge," he added.

And the Lyric Theater, once at the heart of what was called the Black Broadway, is right where that edge cuts. Over-shadowed now, literally, by vast condominium skyscrapers rising from downtown, the Lyric, founded in 1915 by a wealthy businessman (who was part of a large middle-class black Miami community in the first half of the 20th century), was almost destroyed in the 1960s when developers built a highway through these parts. From "the Harlem of the South," the area became, "Overtown," a community the road drove over—and into destitution.

Today, the Lyric survives thanks to money from the local redevelopment council. But neighbors are worried that "development" for others will steal the last land they've got.

"You can understand why gentrification's a threat," Denise Perry of Power U—a community empowerment project based in Overtown—and one of the Live From Main Street panelists told me after the event. "In the 1960s developers had a choice whether to build the road near the water, nearer downtown, or smack through a thriving black community—and they chose the last."

The desolation of neighborhoods is a pattern that has rippled across this country. But where is the media's coverage? Well, here's a typical newspaper headline from the past weekend, "Which Candidate will Benefit from the Housing Flap?" A quarter of a million foreclosures in June is hardly a "flap." And which politician will gain advantage is hardly the most important point.

This is exactly that sort of reporting that Live From Main Street puts into harsh relief. At the Lyric, tenant organizers, green builders, political advocacy groups and Miami residents (on the stage and off) got a chance to speak. Latasha Jones, a tenant organizer in Liberty City and panelist on Saturday, lives in an apartment with no hot water and a leaky roof. The families she knows didn't walk willingly into sub-prime mortgages. Miami currently has four people waiting for each of the city's 10,000 units of public housing. Jones herself is on that waiting list, as she told the Miami Herald, one of several local media outlets drawn by the national event.

Local residents are entering into bad loans due to shady mortgage practices by lenders or because their only other option was homelessness. Do you think it's fair that "relief" for the profit-makers should come from public coffers (which are already slashing public services) while immense profits remain in private hands? Darin Woods, a financial advisor from Countrywide Home Loan, got an earful from his critics at LFMS where he appeared as a panelist, but he concluded that the event “is just the sort of forum we need more of." (Florida's Attorney General joined the AG's of three other states in suing Countrywide for deceptive practices July 1.)

The presidential candidates are unlikely to talk about today's housing crisis and sustainable development in a place like Overtown. "That's why we're here," said Tracy Van Slyke, director of The Media Consortium, a network of some 45 national, independent media outlets and LFMS’s producer. The goal, said Van Slyke, “is to tell real stories from real people about the issues that effect their communities, and our country, during this election season. We're cutting through political spin and horserace coverage." Pooling resources—as the Consortium has, to make LFMS possible—and working together, independent media can bring national attention to places like Overtown, and put key issues into national context.

There will be more. The LFMS series began in June in Minneapolis and will move through five states in the run up to November. The next will be in Denver, at the start of the Democratic National Convention. After that, the project goes to Columbus, Ohio, where the topic will be voting, and finally Seattle, where the producers are convening an all-female panel to talk about national security.

Together, we really can make a new media world.

Live From Main Street is a production of the Media Consortium with Portions of the program will appear on GRITtv this Thursday, July 17th, and on both satellite networks—Dish Network, CH. 9415 (Free Speech TV) and Direct TV (Link TV)—later this week. It is a community-supported reporting project (made possible also with funding from the Wallace Global Fund and the Arca Foundation.)