Partners (Fall 2002)

Community-Based Organizations in Diverse Communities
By Ana Cruz-Taura

In the wake of the 2000 Census, a growing awareness has emerged concerning significant demographic shifts across the country over the last 10 years. Communities most affected by such changes have had to face new demands with housing, employment, education, and social services. Experience has shown that those communities that are adept at adjusting to change will have a better chance for a successful transition.

One such example in the Sixth District is the Miami-Dade County, which has a long history of managing diverse communities. Miami has several different models to show how it has leveraged its diversity while managing the myriad needs of a multicultural community. Its experiences have come with mixed success, but one essential element has been to have strong community-based organizations to help navigate the social, economic, and cultural waters.

Miami Beach CDC

The Miami Beach Community Development Corporation (MBCDC), founded in 1981, is an outstanding example of visionary leadership in successfully adapting to growth and redevelopment within a richly diverse community. MBCDC is committed to the balance of physical environment, economic vibrancy, and social fabric to maintain quality of life and livable communities in Miami Beach. And as its mission states, the success of this community organization is due in great part to a commitment to respect, foster, and keep in balance those three components.

Residents of The Jefferson, one of the first affordable housing historic building rehabs done by the Miami Beach CDC.

Originally founded by the Miami Design Preservation League, MBCDC initially undertook the economic revitalization of the Art Deco District in an area known as South Beach. Due in large part to its success at attracting economic reinvestment to the area, MBCDC has had to face a plethora of community development changes. The most tenuous issues have been unbalanced gentrification, a lack of affordable housing, and struggles to preserve or restore valuable historic elements in neighborhoods.

Perhaps most indicative of the character of this community-based organization, and fundamental to its success and viability over the last 20 years, is that MBCDC’s efforts have stayed committed to serving the needs of the diverse and changing low- and moderate-income resident population of Miami Beach. The commitment also involves a desire to promote historic preservation.

MBCDC Director Roberto Datorre says that diversity is what defines the richness and beauty of Miami Beach and Miami-Dade County. He says that the CDC strives to reflect the community it serves in its election of board members. "The general objections we’ve dealt with all along have had to do with the misconception of what affordable housing really is," says Datorre. "But everything we have done has been planned in a such a way as to enhance the neighborhood. In fact, our affordable housing rehabs of historic structures have become a model for successful rehab by other investors."

Addressing Housing Needs

A significant proportion of South Beach’s residents prior to the revitalization efforts was low-income elderly, and this group was the most vulnerable to rapidly escalating property taxes resulting from gentrification. Consequently, Miami Beach CDC projects have included affordable housing for the elderly.

Another strong focus has been on affordable rental property that provides local housing for much of the large service industry workforce that supports the hotels, shops, and restaurants of a highly tourist dependent economy. The CDC has also redeveloped local apartment buildings to provide affordable housing for people with AIDS.

In working to meet its objectives to promote home ownership, MBCDC has developed a well-staffed and aggressive homeownership program that counsels and subsidizes targeted low- and moderate-income homeowners to ensure the continued balance of economic diversity on South Beach.

All of these initiatives have allowed the Miami Beach CDC to reach out to meet the needs of a variety of individuals while accessing equally varied specialized funding that has been used to leverage local invest-ment. The objectives have also attracted support from a wide and talented network of individuals, businesses, municipalities, and intermediaries.

In essence, respecting and protecting the diversity of South Beach has contributed to the depth and richness of this community that has attracted multi-national investment from individuals and businesses that are at home in a multi-layered environment.

Aldo Olguin, resident of The Fernwood (housing for people living with AIDS), with Roberto Datorre, director of the MBCDC.

East Little Havana CDC

Several other local CDCs have also successfully managed the urban revitalization of their Miami neighborhoods. East Little Havana CDC and Little Haiti Housing Association (LHHA) were both established to meet the needs of predominantly low- and moderate-income ethnic populations (Hispanic and Haitian, respectively). Both organizations are challenged with developing, leveraging, and protecting the ethnic identity of their communities while attracting mainstream investment.

Although initially focused on affordable housing development, they both have begun to include commercial redevelopment in their objectives. Providing opportunities for existing residents to access homeownership and develop local business ownership is key to protecting the cultural atmosphere of these neighborhoods.

In targeting products and services, the East Little Havana CDC and LHHA have relied strongly on their own roots in the community. The organizations are staffed with individuals who demographically represent the targeted constituency, thereby managing possible language and cultural barriers that often exist in working with immigrant groups.

These organizations also attract support from the larger ethnic communities that they represent, including individuals who have achieved success and would like to give something back to help others.

Maintaining Strong Ties to Community and Culture

Maintaining strong ties to the local community and culture has allowed these three CDCs to also act as conduits for businesses trying to market services to its local constituency. Especially in the area of financial services and product marketing, being able to communicate with local residents through the community-based organizations has been crucial to financial institutions and other businesses trying to service those geographic and demographic market segments. Community-based organizations have also assisted in finding local staff for businesses that locate in these neighborhoods.

Miami Beach CDC, East Little Havana CDC, and Little Haiti Housing Association are all examples of how a community-based organization serving a diverse market can attract and disseminate a variety of resources and information in such a way as to strengthen the viability and sustainability of multi-cultural communities — both inside and across the neighborhood boundaries. These organizations contribute to the economic growth, social mainstreaming, and cultural diversity of its residents.


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