max_rameau.jpgMIAMI – Miami-Dade County Commissioner Dorrin Rolle is a sellout, Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones cannot be trusted, and local pastors Richard Dunn and Gaston E. Smith are two-faced, government-controlled puppets, according to community activist Max Rameau.
All this and a thought-provoking analysis of gentrification in the city of Miami are included in Rameau’s new, 132-page, self-published book, Take Back the Land: Land, Gentrification and The Umoja Village Shantytown (Nia Press, $12.95).

While the effort would certainly have benefited from a strong editor to help pull it all together, the outspoken local activist has written a remarkably clear and irony-filled account of the widespread gentrification in Miami, including the compelling blow-by-blow conception, birth and ultimate demise of the organization Take Back the Land’s (TBTL) nationally recognized shantytown, Umoja Village.

Umoja was actually the result of TBTL’s plan to “liberate” vacant units of public housing by placing some of the 41,000 people on a Miami-Dade County waiting list for affordable housing into government-owned apartments, then gaining public support to help ensure that the families remained there.

The objective was two-fold: Providing shelter to people who needed it, and focusing attention on the shameful number of units that inexplicably sit vacant while families wait, sometimes years, for affordable housing.  

During his research in preparation for the takeover, however, Rameau discovered the Pottinger Settlement. The settlement was the outcome of a class-action lawsuit against the city of Miami involving more than 6,000 homeless people. It was an effort to stop the police from harassing the homeless for engaging in “life sustaining conduct.”

Pottinger essentially says that if provisions for the homeless are not available, (beds in a homeless shelter) people are legally entitled to convene on public property to take care of themselves, including bathing, sleeping and eating without police harassment or threat of arrest. Armed with that knowledge,
Rameau and his organization took over the corner of 62nd Street and Northwest 17th Avenue in the Liberty City neighborhood on Oct. 23, 2006.

Umoja Village, as the area was named by Rameau’s partner, became a community within a community, a place where, “formerly homeless people not only found a place to sleep, but a place to call home,” Rameau said in his preface.

Indeed, Rameau described a residential environment where occupants seemed to temporarily reclaim some power in their apparently powerless lives, some routine in their seemingly unstable existence.

Said Rameau, “They voted on the rules of the community in which they lived and partook in its development and maintenance, cooking, cleaning, building shanties, a shower, a library and a welcome center.”

While Rameau certainly recognizes the importance of assuring that poverty-stricken  people have access to services to help ameliorate the social issues that plague them, his book emphasizes the complexity and sheer difficulty associated with providing long-term, permanent relief to people with chronic issues like mental health and drug addictions.

Rameau acknowledged the importance of The Miami Herald’s Pulitzer Prize-winning House of Lies investigative report that uncovered widespread corruption in Miami-Dade’s public housing administration. He cautioned, however, that the corruption was simply a part of the problem. The larger problem, he contends, is the dismal amount of public housing made available to people who need it.

In his book, Rameau asserts Dorin Rolle’s complicity in the Scott Carver housing debacle called HOPE VI (a federal program designed to replace old barrack style public housing with more moderate units and single family homes). Rameau says in his book, “only 11 of the 462 HOPE VI replacement homes were built, even as tens of millions of dollars were gone and unaccounted for.” Rolle did not respond to a request for comment.

Rameau also describes how Richard Dunn initially supported Umoja Village and its efforts to protest gentrification.

“The month after Umoja was founded, Dunn spent a night on a Village couch, in solidarity with the residents,” Rameau wrote.

Dunn even criticized his former political foe (he lost a bitter election against Spence-Jones for the commission seat she now holds) for attempting to “pass an emergency ordinance designed to outlaw the Village.” 

Dunn’s support of Umoja turned to opposition when, according to Rameau, the two “ran into each other at a holiday party, and after a few meetings,”
Spence-Jones appointed Dunn as the chair of her Housing Task Force to “resolve” the Umoja Village “problem.”

Neither Spence-Jones nor Dunn responded to requests for comment.

Smith, (who was arrested for allegedly spending county funds earmarked for a non-profit organization he ran and has implicated Spence-Jones, a member of his church), Rameau wrote, “strolled onto the land, called the place a crime scene and announced he was there to ‘do what is right for the residents.’
When pressed to talk to even one actual resident, Smith refused.” Smith did not respond to request for comment.

Rameau provides a compelling look at the dynamics of gentrification, including racial discrimination’s intractable presence in the state of inner city housing.
His premise that the root issue of gentrification revolves primarily around the control of land will surely spark debate among those who believe that personal ownership of land must precede collective ownership of land – and who insist that personal responsibility factors into an individual’s housing options.

Umoja Village was burned to the ground in a fire that Rameau said “can only be described as suspicious.”

Photo by Khary Bruyning. Max Rameau