hashim-benford_web.jpgIt seems like just yesterday that Florida was at the center of a housing boom that analysts claimed would never end. 

Supposedly, housing values were going to rise and rise. But it was only a matter of time before the inflated financial market was brought crashing down to reality.  And just as Florida had been at the center of the boom, it quickly became a center of the economic crash and resulting recession.

This is a pretty familiar story to most Floridians.  Often missing from this tale, however, are the nuances of inequality that color major economic ups and downs in this country.

Not everybody gained from the profits generated by the real-estate frenzy.  For working-class families in black and Latino communities, runaway development and the construction of towering condos meant gentrification and displacement.  Whole neighborhoods were literally sacrificed under the false pretense of “urban renewal.”  Meanwhile, unemployment and underemployment remained high among blacks and Latinos in Florida. 

Despite all the profit the developers were sucking out of our state, our communities were dealing with a crisis in housing,  jobs were hard to come by, and our students were trapped in underfunded and failing public schools.  On top of it all, many families were driven deeper and deeper into debt by skyrocketing healthcare costs. 

In short, many of our communities were in recession before the recession hit; we now are experiencing a full-on depression as all of the pressing issues affecting our communities get compounded by the weight of a global economic crisis. 

The response of the government to the recession was swift to be sure.  There were trillions of dollars in bank bailouts and a $787 billion stimulus package, supposedly designed to put people back to work and stabilize housing markets.  But when money is not purposefully invested in the hardest-hit communities, we end up with what we had before, inequality. 

Already, some analysts – including Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke – look to the stock markets’ rebounding, and are ready to declare the recession nearly over. This is despite the fact that unemployment continues to rise and families are still being put out on the street. 

A recovery of Wall Street, or Brickell Avenue, for that matter, does not equate to long-term sustainability for our communities.  Now that the cracks have been exposed in the way we do business, it’s time for us to reorganize our priorities.  It’s time for us to build a fair Florida.  

All Floridians, regardless of their race, gender, income level or neighborhood, should have access to affordable housing, employment that can support a family, quality schools, good health care, and reliable transportation.  In order to attain this goal, we must address long-standing social and economic disparities.   We must target investment in those communities that have historically been left out, focusing on responsible economic development that actually builds the wealth of black and Latino communities. 

All Floridians should be served by local and state governments that are open, transparent and accountable.  Rather than representing the interests of big business, our elected officials should be defenders of the people’s needs.  A government for the people and by the people requires that all residents be counted, have the right to vote, and have their political interests adequately represented. 

Building a fair Florida is about more than electing one politician over another, or simply winning a few policy victories.  It’s about taking power away from corporate behemoths and placing it in the hands of everyday people.  It’s about redefining the role and functionality of government to centralize the needs and interests of communities.  And as we unite around this vision, Florida will once again come to the forefront of national trends, not as a center of a boom or a bust, but as a focal point for justice and democracy.  

Hashim Yeomans-Benford is an organizer for the Miami Workers Center, a grassroots strategy and action center that works for racial and economic justice in South Florida.