Miami-Dade Partnerships Take Root

A new branch library emerges from an innovative collaboration

March 18, 2011

At a time when resources are shrinking, funding is scarce, and businesses are folding, finding partners to help realize goals is not just an interesting concept but a necessity. To provide support services to formerly homeless individuals and families, many with special needs, the Miami-Dade Public Library System joined forces with the county’s Homeless Trust and Carrfour Supportive Housing, a nonprofit organization that provides permanent housing.

From this innovative partnership—based on the “mixed use” approach to development and construction—emerged the new Hispanic Branch Library, which sits below the Villa Aurora Apartments, an affordable housing complex for previously homeless families. The project, the first of its kind east of the Mississippi, successfully combines functions with like-minded entities to create the best use of public facilities during tough economic times.

“Public libraries play an important role in communities,” says Library System Director Raymond Santiago. “Providing access to resources, learning, and discovery means our residents have the opportunity to become better prepared in school, in their jobs, and in improving themselves. Having a library inside the Villa Aurora complex means that we already have a built-in audience of learners. The Hispanic Branch is a great asset not only to the residents but also for the people in the surrounding neighborhood.”

Original plans did not call for locating the Hispanic Branch Library within an affordable housing complex. A two-story Salvation Army homeless shelter formerly occupied the site. After many decades, the shelter was taken over by another nonprofit organization that subsequently went into bankruptcy. The building was foreclosed on and remained abandoned for several years. In 2000, Miami-Dade County solicited “a request for application” to find a developer that could bring the building back to its original state so it could serve its intended purpose. Carrfour Supportive Housing was selected as the builder.

Carrfour had originally set out to renovate the traditional two-story shelter, with 39 beds and common areas, but those plans were tied up for years. At the same time, the library system’s previous Hispanic Branch, an almost 40-year-old leased facility, was in need of major repairs, and the renovation costs were proving to be prohibitive. For nearly a year, the library system conducted a search to lease a new and better-suited facility in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, made up of predominantly Hispanic, low-income families. In 2003, Miami-Dade Commissioner Bruno Barreiro intervened and suggested that the library system partner with Carrfour and the Homeless Trust. Santiago welcomed the suggestion.

The result: Instead of refurbishing the existing branch library or leasing new space in a storefront, an agreement was reached for Carrfour to build a 76-unit, condo-like apartment complex on the site of the old two-story shelter and lease the first-floor space to the library system. What was once an eyesore is now a beautiful apartment complex complete with a 12,000-square-foot branch library, an inviting community destination that has also helped revitalize the Little Havana neighborhood.

“None of these groups had ever been through anything quite like this before,” said David Raymond, executive director of the Homeless Trust. “But being able to share our resources proved that you can do things in partnership with a project and property for its highest and best use.”

Carrfour’s CEO and President Stephanie Berman-Eisenberg knows firsthand the hurdles that the library system and Carrfour had to overcome—primarily getting the financing sources to agree to the new project. Success was the result of a cooperative and innovative joint effort. “It takes a special entity to partner together to do something like this, and for our families, the library is an amazing resource,” she said.

Partnerships like this not only benefit the patron or end user but can also benefit the developer and others involved in the project. Costs for mixed-use projects, especially those with an affordable housing component, may offset construction costs by taking advantage of low-income housing tax credits or state tax credits. In Carrfour’s case, funding for the $21.8-million project came from a variety of sources including the Enterprise Social Investment Corporation’s tax credit equity, an incentive loan from the Florida Housing Finance Corporation, deferred developer fees, a surtax housing assistance loan, and federal funds. In exchange for the leasehold interest in the property, Carrfour paid the county $1.1 million (the assessed value) as a lease acquisition fee. These funds are allowable under the state tax credit funding and were committed to be utilized for future permanent supportive housing projects.

The cost to the library system of developing the Hispanic Branch Library was $3 million. The cherry on top was the immediate audience for the facility. Artwork by kids in the complex and the neighborhood brighten the library’s walls, and the spaces hum with activity. The door count for September: 18,798. It was a win from many perspectives!

Ambitious outreach

The Miami-Dade Public Library System, the eighth-largest in the United States and a recipient of the 2008 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, strives to be a compelling community destination by providing a five-star customer service experience. With 48 branches and four bookmobiles, the library aims to reach every resident of Miami-Dade County seeking informational, educational, or recreational materials. The library offers access to a collection of more than 3.5 million books and materials, 1,577 public computers, 117 self-checkout machines, and Wi-Fi at every location. In addition, each year the library presents thousands of exhibitions and public programs, including the Art of Storytelling International Festival, a literacy program for adults and children, and classes in technology. The library proudly serves more than 8 million visitors who come through its doors annually and another 4.4 million who access collections and services through its website.

A mission to end homelessness

The Homeless Trust’s mission is to end homelessness in Miami-Dade County. The trust is not a direct service provider. Instead, it is responsible for implementing policy initiatives developed by the 27-member Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust Board and for monitoring contract compliance by agencies that contract with the county, through the trust, to provide housing and services for homeless persons.

The trust also oversees the utilization of the food and beverage tax proceeds earmarked for homeless services, as well as other funding sources, to ensure that people in need receive emergency, transitional, and ultimately permanent supportive housing. The trust has served as lead applicant on behalf of the county for federal and state funding opportunities, developing and implementing the annual process to identify gaps and needs along the continuum of homelessness.

Affording dignity and respect

Carrfour’s ultimate goal is also to end homelessness in Miami-Dade County. Founded in 1993 by the Homeless Committee of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, Carrfour provides permanent housing and supportive services to promote the self-sufficiency of the formerly homeless in the county and other cities in Florida through joint ventures with various nonprofit organizations. For more than 13 years, Carrfour has provided secure, attractive, affordable housing where residents pay 30% of their income for rent and services.

Carrfour advocates for supportive housing as a cost-effective way to stabilize and house people with special needs, including those with physical and mental disabilities or recovering from substance abuse. The organization has made a major contribution, not only by creating supportive housing in Miami, but by advising the administration, Congress, and the general public about what is required to develop such housing and provide the appropriate services. Along with the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Carrfour has accepted the challenge of providing permanent supportive housing—and the sense of dignity and respect it affords—to people in need.

VICTORIA GALAN is public affairs manager for Miami-Dade Public Library System.