Case Study

Taking Down the Walls Around Public Housing

6 min read

Liberty Square in Miami 

Public housing has come a long way since Liberty Square was built in the late 1930s in Miami. Today, an enormous redevelopment seeks to better integrate Liberty Square’s public housing residents into a more inclusive setting featuring affordable, workforce and market-rate housing. Back then, though, the city of Miami built an actual wall to separate the Black residents of Liberty Square from the adjacent white neighborhood.

The seven-foot-high wall was built along Northwest 12th Avenue just after Liberty Square opened in 1937 and extended as far as the housing project did. “Today, remnants of it remain and can be seen plainly separating Northwest 12th Avenue and Northwest 12th Parkway along Liberty Square. It’s a haunting reminder today of the Jim Crow era of the past,” according to Miami- and New York-based writer Shayne Benowitz.

Construction costs have changed a bit since 1937, as well. Liberty Square was a $1 million Public Works Administration project (which came in under budget by more than $75,000), and while a million dollars must have been a hefty sum during the Depression, the current gut remake of the project will cost 500 times as much.

Construction on Liberty Square (the Walter Butler Co. of St. Paul, MN was the contractor) was completed by December 1936, and landscaping costing $29,550 started taking shape that fall. Forty families were the first to move in, in February 1937. The original project was built to hold 243 families in one- and two-story buildings (the capacity has since grown out to more than 700 units of public housing).

Income requirements were that families earn three times the amount of their rents. Unit sizes varied between two and four rooms for the one-story units and four and five rooms for the two-story units.

Move-in was quickly followed by the birth of the first child said to be born in public housing in the country, LeClair Lambert. Mr. Lambert would return to Liberty Square 50 years later to detail his positive memories of growing up in the project.

Contemporary photos of the development show unremarkable houses threaded through a street grid. In the two-story homes, the upper story was used for sleeping quarters.

Community Amenities
“There are  36 buildings of which 35 are apartment structures and the other a community building,” noted The Miami Herald at the time. Community amenities included “an auditorium with fireplace, an outdoor barbecue furnace, kitchen and dining rooms, storage room, offices of the management, paymaster’s office and clinic and day nursery.”

The units were built on 20 acres of a 60-acre parcel (Liberty Square remains 60 acres today), which left plenty of room for later development.

“During the 1940s and ‘50s, Liberty Square was one of the most desirable apartment developments for African Americans to reside in. It was inhabited by the Who’s Who of Miami’s Black community,” according to an article by Benowitz.

The turbulent 1960s marked the start of a change in the neighborhood, Benowitz wrote.

“With a majority low-income Black population in a neighborhood seething with racial tension and inequality, violence and crime became prevalent. The Republican National Convention was held in Miami Beach in August of 1968 and race riots occurred in Liberty City.”

Subsequent riots in the 1980s remain, for many, the defining feature of Liberty City as a troubled inner-city neighborhood. But the vast Liberty Square redevelopment is part of a recent turnaround that some are describing with the word ‘transformational.”

That’s the word Miami-Dade public housing director Michael Liu used as the third of nine phases of Liberty Square was dedicated recently.

Transformational Development
The project “represents the complete transformation of the oldest public housing project in the Southeast and our commitment toward the evolution of public housing, becoming an engine for transformational community development in South Florida,” Liu says.

“This redevelopment goes beyond buildings, ensuring that Liberty Square and the surrounding neighborhood rise in a way that we can be proud of in terms of both the brick and mortar, and how the people who live there are treated.”

Consider the stats when Liberty Square is finally complete: a 60-acre site replacing 700 public housing units with nearly 1,500 units of garden-style housing and townhomes. Six hundred of these have already been built in the first three phases (the just-opened Phase III, Harmony at Liberty Square, includes 192 units, 71 of them public housing, in six buildings). Other facilities? A huge village green and community park. Retail and commercial spaces, including a grocery store, in a large L-shaped ring around the exterior of the community. Five- to eight-story buildings with commercial properties on the first floor and housing upstairs. And a charter school.

Albert Milo, president of developer Related Urban Development Group, a unit of Related Group, Miami, agrees with Liu, saying he hopes the finished project will “improve the lives of thousands of the city’s long-time residents and welcome a whole new generation into the neighborhood.”

And while the project will deliver a vast visual improvement to the community, the three entities in the public-private partnership (the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Miami-Dade County and Related) feel its effects will go beyond that.

Beyond the housing, current-day community amenities will include “renovations to the historic Liberty Square Community Center, a new educational campus, healthcare facilities, a national grocer, ample green spaces and more.”

Half a Billion Dollars
Total development costs for the entire project are estimated to come in somewhere near half a billion dollars.

Miami-Dade County has committed $74 million to the project (they call it Liberty City Rising) and it includes $28 million to revitalize the Liberty City neighborhood outside of the project as well, through the creation of affordable and workforce multifamily housing, economic development and capital improvements.

The county’s $74 million is expected to leverage more than $390 million of private sector investment. The $46 million targeted specifically to Liberty Square should leverage $307 million, according to the county, and Liberty City Rising will generate around 2,290 new jobs.

Taking public housing out of its traditional self-contained silos (the more modern way of walling it off than installing an actual wall) and repositioning it among a wider variety of housing mixes, creating these types of very broad communities is a trend that is gaining traction. Another example of this is Envision Cayce in Nashville (Tax Credit Advisor, July 2021), where the 716 units of public housing in the old Cayce Place are being threaded into a community of more than 2,000 housing units.

Another thing that may help Liberty City, according to neighborhood profiler, is that the neighborhood is on some of the highest ground in a city that is already feeling the effects of sea level rise from climate change.

That’s “a major factor in the city’s ‘climate gentrification’ trend that’s seen more eastern residents slowly flee their oceanside, flood-prone areas. This has altered the makeup of the neighborhood in recent years: its Hispanic population more than doubled between 2013 and 2019 to about 7,500. At the same time, Liberty City’s Black population fell ten percent to 18,550.”

As the City of Miami itself is transformed by rising sea levels leading to migration into Liberty Square and Liberty City, that may give a whole extra nuance to the county’s project name of Liberty City Rising.

Mark Fogarty has covered housing and mortgages for more than 30 years. A former editor at National Mortgage News, he has written extensively about tax credits.