Neighborhood Housing Services of South Florida


Carl Sussman, Sussman Associates, and John Weiser, BWB Solutions

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Volume 12, Issue 1 | September 12, 2017

In 2009 the Miami-Dade County Commission declared the 79th Street Corridor a
Community Redevelopment Area (CRA). The CRA designation was the first indication
that the county acknowledged the decades-long decline in the neighborhoods
surrounding this two mile thoroughfare between the cities of Miami and Hialeah. In
all, the CRA covers three and a half square miles. The county’s declaration caused its planning
department to issue a Community Redevelopment Plan the following year.

Eric Burnside remembers going to a public meeting about the plan. A long-time resident
of the neighborhood, Burnside was unimpressed. “People who live within the [CRA]
boundaries were not involved [in the plan’s preparation] but the people who lived outside
the boundaries were.” Emphasizing the disregard of the corridor’s residents, Burnside added,
“This started long before the ‘70s and goes back to everything I have experienced as a child
and growing up: the system of exclusion.”

Neighborhood Housing Services of South Florida (NHSSF) had long identified the 79th
Street Corridor community as one in desperate need of stabilization and reinvestment. A
member of the NeighborWorks® network, NHSSF is a well-established community development
organization that delivers a spectrum of housing related services and supports community
building. Decades of official neglect and racial segregation, however, created significant
barriers to improvements around the 79th Street corridor. Then, in late 2013, Citi Foundation
and the Low Income Investment Fund selected NHSSF to receive one of 14 Partners in
Progress (PIP) grants to serve as a “community quarterback.” The grant provided an opportunity
to catalyze the corridor’s redevelopment and to test the efficacy of the new community
quarterback model of neighborhood development.

The Neighborhood: “There Is No There There”

Community quarterbacks emphasize the need to include residents in all aspects of
the community development process. Moreover, they start with the assumption that only
comprehensive cross-sector, people- and place-based approaches can address the complex
circumstances that cause disinvestment, failing schools, health disparities and similar conditions
associated with chronically distressed neighborhoods. It is essential, therefore, that
quarterback organizations build a broad partnership of organizations, institutions, neighborhood
residents and governmental agencies. Achieving such cooperation across systems is an
enormous challenge in and of itself. NHSSF faced three distinctive hurdles initially:

  • It had to engage with and win the trust of residents, like Burnside, who had been
    excluded and seen promised redevelopment efforts evaporate as quickly as they were
  • Unlike most PIP grantees who serve well-recognized neighborhoods such as Brownsville
    in Brooklyn or Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, NHSSF’s challenge included a further
    complication: the CRA boundaries did not conform to any generally recognized
    neighborhood. Instead, it was carved out of portions of the Arcola Lakes, Model City,
    Gladeview, Liberty City and West Little River neighborhoods.
  • Finally, the 79th Street neighborhood is not even part of a municipality. It sits in the
    unincorporated void surrounding Miami-Dade County’s planetary system of selfgoverning
    municipalities that includes Miami, Hialeah and 32 other local jurisdictions.
    Yet, almost half of the County’s 2.6 million population resides in unincorporated
    areas, making the NW 79th Street CRA’s 20,000 residents, according to Arden
    Shank, NHSSF’s long-time president and CEO, “a tiny drop in the bucket” that must
    struggle to get the attention of governmental officials.

The corridor’s unfamiliar boundaries and the lack of municipal government led NHSSF’s
Arden Shank to observe, “There is no there there.” Shank continues:

There is no city government we can go to. This area is split between two county commission
districts out of thirteen; we occupy only a small portion of those two districts. And county
government is huge. It is one of the largest employers in South Florida. If I were to walk
into the County Mayor’s office now he probably won’t know we exist. But my colleagues in
Chicago and LA have significant relationships with elected and appointed officials in their
city government….The whole political arrangement militates against success.

The CRA declaration and the boundaries drawn around NW 79th Street originated with
one of NHSSF’s sister organizations, the 79th Street Corridor Neighborhood Initiative, Inc.,
not with county government. Frustrated with the lack of effort to revitalize the area NHSSF
and two other nonprofit organizations, the Urban League of Greater Miami and the Dade
Employment and Economic Development Corporation, formed the Initiative ten years
before the county’s CRA designation. The Initiative’s goal is to transform the three and a
half square mile community surrounding the corridor “from a fragmented set of residential,
commercial, and industrial sites with a reputation as dangerous and undesirable into a cohesive
neighborhood conscious of its…assets and directing its future.” NHSSF, which serves
two massive South Florida counties, Miami-Dade and Broward, had identified the corridor
as one of a few target areas where it focused its organizational resources and energies. For that
reason, it helped form the Initiative in 1999.

While NHSSF received the Citi’s PIP grant, the 79th Street Corridor Neighborhood
Initiative functions as “co-quarterback.” Shank describes tailoring the quarterback model to
the unique circumstances and capabilities that exist in this community. That meant working
as co-quarterbacks with the Neighborhood Initiative. This team combined NHSSF’s housing
and community development experience with the Initiative’s knowledge of this particular
neighborhood and its role in securing the county’s CRA designation for it.

The Initiative commissioned the very first planning study for the corridor in 2001. Two
more studies in 2003 and 2004 highlighted the same challenges and opportunities cited in
the first report. Yet it wasn’t until 2009 that the county, with the Initiative’s prodding, created
the CRA. The county’s 2010 CRA plan affirmed the themes of the earlier reports. Nonetheless,
no action ensued. By default, therefore, the PIP grant enabled NHSSF to assume a catalytic
role. It formed a steering committee that eventually included representatives from 36
organizations, businesses and government agencies to formulate a community-level agenda
for revitalizing the NW 79th Street Corridor.

The Challenge

While jurisdictional and geographic issues created challenges for NHSSF as a community
development quarterback, there is a powerful economic logic to gathering the residential,
commercial, and industrial areas on either side of NW 79th Street. The Action Plan NHSSF
developed with its partners during the first year of PIP funding notes:

The 79th Street Corridor’s central location to employment and manufacturing centers;
inventory of valuable and underutilized industrial land;…particularly along key transportation
and commercial corridors; and extensive transit and rail infrastructure are a few of the
assets rarely found elsewhere.

While the Interstate Highway system siphons some traffic from NW 79th Street, also
known as Florida State Road 934, it remains a major east-west thoroughfare. It contains
a great deal of vacant and underutilized land on the eastern edge, right where it abuts the
border with the densely-developed City of Miami. Greater Miami’s proximity to Latin
America and the Caribbean, moreover, makes the region an important center of international
trade. The land along NW 79th Street targeted by NHSSF for its PIP-funded activities
is just miles northeast of Miami International Airport and northwest of the Port of Miami,
the 11th largest container port in the United States. It is also rich in transportation infrastructure.
The Metrorail rapid transit system has 3 stops in the neighborhood. It is also served
by Tri-Rail, a three county commuter rail system. Amtrak’s East Coast line terminates in
the neighborhood. Moreover the industrial portion of the corridor is served by Florida East
Coast Railway’s freight service which connects up with South Florida’s busy ports and other
national freight systems.

One important lesson from the last half century of community development activities
is that physical revitalization is far more likely to succeed when there is a robust regional
economy, and neighborhoods can connect to it. If community developers can connect residents
to employment opportunities throughout the region, it provides the foundation for
equally robust people-based community development strategies. In those more prosperous
locales, instead of facing a headwind of disinvestment, the market provides an invigorating
tailwind. The NW 79th St. Corridor’s nearness to Miami and its airport; its developable land
and its transportation infrastructure, attest to the compelling rationale for treating the neighborhoods
abutting this thoroughfare as a coherent economic development target.

There are, however, additional historic and legacy reasons for focusing on the corridor.
The area developed rapidly following the World War II and became a stable middle-class
African American neighborhood. In 1959 the intersection of NW 79th Street and 27th
Avenue became a major retail hub with the opening of the Northside Shopping Center –
one of South Florida’s first – anchored by a Sears Roebuck department store. It sits at the
center of the CRA. LaTonda James, NHSSF’s community building manager, grew up in the
neighborhood and remembers the “movie theater across the street from the Northside Shopping
Center and the drive-in theater just two blocks north of it.” According to James “That
intersection was the epicenter of Black Miami.”

The neighborhood’s liveliness eroded after the civil unrest that followed the acquittal
of four Miami-Dade police officers in the beating death of Arthur McDuffie, an AfricanAmerican
insurance executive, in 1980. Sears and other businesses either decided not to
rebuild or abandoned the neighborhood. The theater and drive-in that James remembers
from her childhood are long gone. With the continuing process of disinvestment middle
class blacks moved to Broward County. Homes began to deteriorate along with the vitality
of the commercial sector. In the quarter century that followed, little was done to reverse the
tide. Today the corridor’s population continues to decline and is estimated to have fallen
below 20,000. Two-thirds of the residents are African-American or Haitian. Per capita income
for the CRA is $13,142, almost half of that for the county as a whole.

Building a Collaborative

With the award of the PIP grant Arden Shank, along with Ron Butler of the 79th Street
Corridor Neighborhood Initiative, Inc., began to reach out to neighborhood organizations,
regional institutions and Miami-Dade County officials as they pulled together a steering
committee to spearhead a renewed drive to revitalize the 79th Street CRA area. Having
NHSSF emerge as the quarterback with the resources to drive a revitalization effort, Butler
reported that “organizations that had not previously participated in planning processes”
began to gravitate to this effort, “most notably the Beacon Council, an economic development
arm of the County Commission.” Butler continued:

Having the Beacon Council, which is like the Chamber [of Commerce elsewhere], raised the
profile of the effort. A lot more community groups that were operating independently came
together under one roof. That had never happened before – the public and private sectors
working together toward the same goals.

These partners formed a steering committee that met monthly for the purpose of developing
an implementation plan to revitalize the corridor. Initially though the most important
part of the process was breaking down silos and building bridges. Those representing “government
agencies admitted that they had never worked with a neighborhood on a specific set of
projects,” according to Shank, “and many of the community agencies did not know about
each other even though they had worked in the same community for years.”

This group, in turn, met quarterly with a “stakeholder’s group” of interested residents to
report on their activities and collect feedback from the community. The steering committee
commissioned an economic, market and strategic planning study to gain a better fix on the
most feasible activities to incorporate into their implementation plan. The latter document,
known as the “Community Action Plan” and prepared by an arm of the South Florida
Regional Planning Council became the Steering Committee’s implementation blueprint.
With its publication the Steering Committee adopted a new name – “the 79th Street
Coalition for Change” – to highlight its commitment to transforming the corridor and its
members subdivided into four Action Groups:

  • Housing and Supportive Services
  • Health, Safety and Quality of Life
  • Community Engagement and Education
  • Economic Development and the Built Environment

The plan is to focus on four leverage points in the corridor. The first is to brand the
neighborhood to project a positive and coherent sense of the community. The coalition
has adopted a logo and prepared banners to be erected on light poles at the “gateway” to
NW 79th Street, where it intersects with NW 7th Avenue so that travelers driving west out
of the City of Miami on NW 79th Street will understand they have entered an identifiable
neighborhood. Another set of banners will mark the gateway for travelers from the east. The
hope is that this branding will help instill a perception that this is a coherent neighborhood
with untapped economic potential.

Another target of opportunity is a twelve block residential neighborhood along NW 18th
Avenue. It is a residential neighborhood with numerous vacant lots, a poorly maintained
pocket park and a few corner stores. It is also a route young children walk daily to reach
schools at either end of the corridor. The coalition’s Housing and Supportive Services Action
Group has helped launch a first-time homebuyers club and has been accompanying the
county commissioner on monthly walks through the neighborhood to identify needs. They
have scored a couple of quick victories. The county followed through with improvements to
the Broadway Park and a grant allowed another organizational partner to recruit volunteers
to plant 100 trees in and around the corridor and at the local elementary school.

The central commercial intersection at NW 79th Street and 27th Avenue where the
Northside Shopping Center sits is a third site slated for improvement. Business owners are
being canvassed about their interest in establishing a business improvement district.

To advance the jobs and economic development agenda, the coalition has targeted the
Poinciana Industrial Park. In addition to the existing businesses and good rail access, the
area includes significant county owned land that could accommodate new and expanded
businesses. The economic development Action Group is in conversations with a manufacturer
of modular housing about locating there and is promoting a Free Trade Zone to spur
job growth.

Resident Engagement

Each Action Group is co-chaired by a community resident and a representative of an
organization or agency with relevant substantive competencies. A member of NHSSF’s staff
serves as a liaison to each group, helping to schedule meetings, coordinate activities among
the Action Groups and provide other support. The co-chairs, in turn, meet once a month to
ensure that the all parts of the Coalition are making satisfactory progress.

At a recent meeting of the co-chairs the Community Engagement and Education Action
Group reported among other things about the team’s emphasis on employment and, more
specifically, their conversations with Miami-Dade College about certificate programs offered
at the North Campus in high labor demand fields including entrepreneurship, computer
repair, graphic design and accounting. Marvin Weeks, an artist and resident of the 18th
Avenue corridor, one of the focal points for the Coalition’s Health, Safety and Quality of
Life Action group updated the co-chairs on their recruitment of volunteers to paint murals.
“We are trying to engage the community in the mural project,” he reported, “to transform
and give another image of the neighborhood.” The Housing Action Group updated the
co-chairs on the first meeting of its newly organized homebuyers club and preliminary plans
to use credit scores to determine its effectiveness and the group’s longer term struggle to
address infrastructure barriers to infill housing construction to cope with the vacant lots
along 18th Avenue.

Eric Burnside gave the report for the Built Environment and Economic Opportunity
Action Group. Not surprisingly, Burnside, who had been so incensed by the lack of resident
input into the county’s CRA plan for the corridor, was a regular at the Coalition’s quarterly
stakeholder meetings at the early stages of that collaborative’s planning. He would sit in the
back of the room, listen, and sometimes ask questions. “Neighborhood Housing reached
out to me on a personal level by the way they were operating and what they were saying,”
Burnside explains.

It made me think that what they were doing might be an opportunity to bring about effective
change. I made it my business to keep a close watch and ear on what Neighborhood
Housing had to say.

Shank and Burnside were apparently sizing each other up. Burnside’s assessment of Shank
suggests the type of attention required to build trust with residents of the community, many of
whom feel excluded when non-residents assume leadership of a neighborhood change process.

I observed Arden Shank from the beginning. Even when he doesn’t appear to be paying
attention, he doesn’t miss it, even if he makes no comments. He brings it up later…When he
talks to me he looks me straight in the eye and speaks…It makes sense. His facial expression
and eyes say the same thing that comes out of his mouth. That’s why I think this is a chance
for effective change.

Shank remembers a conversation with Burnside as a stakeholder meeting was about to
convene. “I said, ‘You ought to be sitting at the table.’ But he took a seat in the back as
usual. When I turned around later, he had taken a seat at the table.” He has been at the
table ever since, now co-chairing the Built Environment and Economic Opportunity Action
Group with the Beacon Council’s vice president, Sheri-Colas-Gervais. Ron Butler, NHSSF’s
“co-quarterback” from the NW 79th Street Initiative serves as that committee’s staff liaison.
The action group is focused on creating a Free Trade Zone in the hope that it will stimulate
growth among the manufacturers in the Poinciana Industrial Park, creating new jobs and
spurring ancillary business activity in the retail and housing sectors.

Meanwhile LaTonda James, the staff liaison to the Education and Community Engagement
Action Group, and Rachel Walker reported on work of that committee, which includes
residents of Northpark at Scott Carver, a large HOPE VI development that replaced two
public housing projects. As Northpark’s residents service coordinator Walker knows many of
the tenants. She and James recruited six residents to participate in a NeighborWorks® leadership
development program. The group spent a long weekend in Louisville and returned
committed to starting a walking club to strengthen the social bonds among residents and
promote healthier lifestyles.

Lessons for Community Development Quarterbacks

Below are the lessons that can be gleaned from NHSSF’s efforts as a community quarterback
to build a cross-sector coalition to revitalize the NW 79th Street Corridor.

A community quarterback can help pull together residents and key organizations into an
effective coalition

Fragmentation is a barrier to development in many communities. The quarterback model
addresses this barrier to community revitalization. The Urban Land Institute convened a
Technical Assistance Panel to make recommendations about the development of the 79th
Street Corridor just as Citi announced its PIP grant to NHSSF. In its report the panel wrote:

The 79th Street Corridor has been the focus of numerous plans and committed organizations
and community leaders. Taking the next step in improving the corridor and bringing
jobs and new economic investments to the corridor will require that the relevant organizations
come together and work toward a shared plan. They also need to speak with one
unified voice when communicating the assets of the corridor and speaking to public officials,
funders, and the development community.

A major boost in unifying the voices and places along the corridor is the recent announcement
of a Citi Foundation…grant to Neighborhood Housing Services of South Florida
(NHSSF)…The initiative will work to advance…a quarterback model of community development
by building the capacity of trusted organizations that align their resources, objectives,
and efforts.

After two years it is apparent that the quarterback model was precisely what this neighborhood
needed to move beyond decades of reports and inaction. While it is too soon to
conclude that NHSSF’s vision of “a vibrant, safe, and economically sustainable community
with rising incomes and property values that is attractive to families of mixed incomes,
businesses, and entrepreneurs” will be realized, there is convincing evidence that progress is
being made.

Building a Cross Sector Coalition is Labor Intensive

Being a quarterback makes heavy demands on the time of the organization’s staff, especially
senior leaders because it involves strategic relationship building. As a result, the Citi
Foundation funding was essential to NHSSF’s capacity to serve as the corridor’s quarterback.
NHSSF buttressed its capacity by serving as co-quarterback with its sister organization, the
79th Street Corridor Neighborhood Initiative.

Trust and Respect are a Quarterback’s Indispensable Currency

Arden Shank has the personal qualities required to build trust and cooperation across
barriers. He has worked in the community for almost 15 years. He not only led NHSSF
during that period, he helped organize and served on the boards of the South Florida
Community Development Coalition, the 79th Street Corridor Neighborhood Initiative and
the Community Reinvestment Alliance of South Florida. Shank earned a reputation for
placing NHSSF’s mission above organizational self-interest. Moreover, in his quiet way, he
reached out to people, listened carefully and has been unfailingly inclusive.

The Promise of Working in an Integrated Way

The 79th Street Coalition for Change is still young. Nonetheless, it has brought disparate
interests to the table to revitalize an area that has been largely ignored for decades. It has
won the attention and cooperation of resident leaders, the business community, numerous
nonprofit organizations and representatives from a number of departments of the Miami-Dade
County government and the Florida Department of Transportation.

The Coalition has provided a structure that has enabled residents to assume leadership
positions in guiding the development agenda. This has legitimacy to the Community Action
Plan and created a virtuous cycle of inter-organizational cooperation.

The Coalition’s Community Action Plan has in fact been used as the blueprint for the
efforts of the four Action Groups during the past year so that complementary initiatives are
moving along in parallel. As a result, the efforts of many organizations are coordinated and
producing better results.

The work of NHSSF and its partners in the 79th Street Coalition for Change has been
able to successfully overcome a key challenge to improving the Corridor. From 2001 until
the start of the PIP Initiative, four planning studies were completed but few if any of the
recommendations were implemented. Why? In large part, as the Urban Land Institute noted,
because there was no unified voice speaking for the neighborhood and taking action to help
ensure the recommendations were implemented. NNSSF and its partners have been able to
overcome this challenge and create a coalition that has strong resident participation as well
as representation from key organizations critical for planning and implementation. The key
steps on the way to this achievement:

Gain trust and engagement of residents

NHSSF and its partners reached out to community residents, encouraged them to participate
in the coalition meetings, developed a governance structure that is co-led by residents,
and provide leadership training for residents.

Get the right organizations to the table

Because the 79th Street corridor sits in an unincorporated part of a large county and is
part of multiple jurisdictions, getting the right players to the table was challenging. But by
consistent, persistent work in helping all key organizations understand how participating in
the coalition can help them achieve objectives important to them, NHSSF and its partners
were able to slowly and steadily build a coalition that include key organizations required for
planning and implementation.

Build a commitment to a shared vision and action plan

NHSSF and its partners took the time needed to allow the Coalition members to determine
the scope and focus of the market study, fully digest its findings and recommendations,
develop an action plan with short, medium and long-term goals and gain commitments from
Coalition members to take specific actions to implement the plan. The work on the action
plan is still relatively young, and so the progress that has been made is modest. Nonetheless,
the Coalition has made concrete achievements including:

Creating a sense of place

The logo and tagline for the gateway banners have been designed and are now in the
process of being sited.

Gathering and reporting meaningful data

The coalition includes three universities that are engaged in providing hands-on advice
and guidance in choosing the right indicators, data sources, and data collection methodologies.

Home ownership

NHSSF has reactivated lending and brokering activities suspended during the recession
and, in partnership with OneUnited Bank, the nation’s largest black-owned bank, has
launched homebuyer training.

Small business

The coalition has begun a small business lending program and is planning a business
improvement district.


A group of residents has participated in NeighborWorks’ leadership training program and
community residents are co-chairing each of the Action Groups.

Active discussions with housing manufacturer and food processing plant

To spur growth in the industrial area and generate more jobs, the Coalition is working
with a housing manufacturer interested in locating in the neighborhood and detail planning
on a foreign trade zone is likely to enable an existing food processor to expand production.

But the simple fact that there is a group of residents and key organizations engaged, advocating
and pursuing implementation for the first time in many decades is perhaps the most
promising sign of future improvements for the 79th Street Corridor community.

This case study was prepared by Carl Sussman of Sussman Associates and John Weiser of BWB Solutions.