‘It’s an important piece of the puzzle.’ MDC eyes public housing site for student use

The Miami Herald

October 9, 2019 / By Douglas Hanks

Well before Miami-Dade County announced it was closing the Harry Cain public housing complex because of its deteriorating conditions, the building’s prominent neighbor inquired about acquiring the site in downtown Miami for an expansion, county officials said.

Eduardo Padrón, then the president of Miami Dade College, approached county leaders about the possibility of the state school using the Cain site for student housing if the federal government ever gave approval for the troubled tower at 490 NE Second Ave. to be redeveloped, said Eileen Higgins, the county commissioner whose district includes Cain and parts of the MDC campus. She said the college asked again after the county’s September announcement that the 15-story Cain tower was closing due to building woes tied to leaks, mold and asbestos.

“Their concept is they want the land,” Higgins said Monday outside a county housing symposium being held at an MDC building a block away from the Cain complex.

She said she’s not interested in talks with the college until all Harry Cain tenants have found new places to live with county assistance. “For me,” she said, “I’m going to worry about the residents.”

The Cain inquiries highlight the real estate ambitions of Miami Dade College, a commuter school with a sprawling campus downtown but no dormitories. It briefly pursued a deal with the city of Miami to build some student apartments in the building that holds the Olympia Theater downtown, and has expressed interest in the city fire station next to the Cain tower, said Ken Russell, the Miami commissioner who represents that part of downtown.

Juan Mendieta, a Miami Dade College spokesman, issued a statement describing the school as interested in the fate of the county-run Harry Cain property, but did not address whether MDC wanted to develop the site itself.

“It is very early in the process,” he wrote. “We are monitoring the progress. It is a property in the middle of the Wolfson Campus, and we are paying attention.”

Padrón did not respond to requests for comment. Bernie Navarro, chairman of the college’s board of trustees, confirmed approaching Higgins at an event after Cain closure plans became public and said that the school’s administration then followed up, requesting a meeting with the commissioner. Navarro said the college wants to obtain more information about the property’s future.

“The school has an interest in seeing what’s going on at the site, the county’s plans on the site,” Navarro said. “That’s all I know about.”

Chairman of the board since 2018, Navarro did not comment on Padrón’s March meeting with Higgins and Michael Liu, director of the county’s Housing and Community Development Department. “I wasn’t part of those discussions,” Navarro said.

At that meeting, Liu said he discouraged Padrón from looking at the Cain site. “The meeting lasted for about 10 minutes,” he said.

Liu said Miami Dade College would face significant hurdles in Washington if it tried to acquire the public housing site, and that he didn’t think the county would be eager to head in that direction. “The whole tenor of the conversation was it’s a long process and we’re not interested,” Liu said.

Liu recalled telling Miami Dade College it was premature to talk about the school’s interest in Cain. “We said there is a process [and that] ‘this is not the right time for us to discuss this,’ ” he said.

Higgins said the county told Padrón that the only way Miami Dade College could use the Cain site for an expansion was if it paid market rate for the real estate — a cost she said would approach $20 million. “He said they couldn’t afford it,” Higgins said.

The county hasn’t said what it plans to do with the Harry Cain site after more than 100 residents leave their apartments and the building is vacant. Miami-Dade Department of Housing and Community Development announced the planned closure of the 1984 public housing building in September.

Reserved for low-income residents and subsidized with federal funds, the 154 units suffer from leaky air conditioners, mold contamination and asbestos issues, according to an August engineers report commissioned by the county. A June inspection report found lead paint in most of the units’ popcorn-style ceilings.

“We will be looking to demolish the building,” Liu said after the closure announcement.

His agency is providing Cain residents with Section 8 housing vouchers to cover most of the rent in privately owned apartment buildings, as well as money for moving expenses and move-in costs. The county is also offering residents counseling to help find a place to live, and priority for a tax-funded housing complex being built nearby, Sawyer’s Landing.

The same week Miami-Dade told residents of Harry Cain they would need to move, the Housing Department informed residents of Annie Coleman 14 in Brownsville that their complex was closing as well. The county cited building conditions and rampant crime as justification for closing Annie Coleman 14, and residents there were offered the same relocation assistance and vouchers as the Cain residents. Miami-Dade has not set a timetable for clearing out the units, but administrators said they understand moving will take time.

Liu emphasized any decisions on the Cain property would need to be approved by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. At just 15 stories, the current building is far shorter than what’s allowed in the area, opening up the possibility of reproducing the existing public-housing units with a broader mix of apartments for rent and for sale.

José Fuentes, a former trustee at Miami Dade College and a lawyer and lobbyist active in county government, said the Cain site has always been appealing for the school because of its location in the midst of MDC’s downtown campus. “It’s an important piece of the puzzle,” he said. “Harry Cain has never been in play. Now that it’s in play, this is the right time” for the college to pursue it.

Former county commissioner Juan Zapata, another former board member at Miami Dade College, said the school’s administration pointed to low-income students as one reason the Cain site was appealing as a possible acquisition.

He recalled a board meeting when administrators said research showed Miami Dade College — a school with campuses across the county and an enrollment of nearly 60,000 students — had about 1,000 students without anywhere to live. Zapata, now a candidate for county mayor, said he’d like to see the college turn the site into workforce housing for students and professors,

“You could do something very interesting there,” Zapata said. “We talked about doing it. We never really got it moving, because of the county.”

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