Dear Miami-Dade County Commissioner Raquel Regalado,
This is Bernardo Escobar. Some of you have known me from my 37 years of public service, starting out as a legislative assistant to State Senator Jack D. Gordon in 1986, who was the dean of the Florida Senate having served 20 years after 8 years on the school board. Senator Gordon was a man with a genius IQ and a wealthy retired banker, who ran for office at the urging of Father Gibson and the black ministers in order to desegregate the Dade County public school system, which he did. He was then urged to run for the Florida Senate to help eliminate discriminatory laws and improve education in the State, which he did.
As Senate reapportionment chairman following the 1970s census, he drew a Florida House seat for the State’s first black State Representative, the late Gwen Cherry, who was tragically killed in an automobile accident on her way to Tallahassee in her short career. She was replaced in the House by Carrie Meek. Then following the census in the 1980s, as Reapportionment Chairman once again he drew the State’s first Senate seat for a black Senator, Carrie Meek’s Senate seat, by combining his own seat and Senator Paul Steinberg’s seat into one primarily Jewish seat instead of two.
Senator Gordon was the author of the original Homestead Property Exemption, Florida’s Constitutional Right to Privacy, sponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), the Writing Skills Act which improved education in the public school system and the infamous Gordon Rule that every student who attended a State college or university detested because it required the student to be proficient in writing in order to graduate. I was lucky to join him practically out of college because two of my early mentors as a student at the U, very young attorneys at the time, had mentored me in college and suggested to Senator Gordon that he should hire me, Joe Geller and Ben Kuehne. I learned a lot from Senator Gordon because he was at the end of his political career and enjoyed teaching me and passing on his policy and political acumen.
From 1986 to 1992, we sponsored an average of 100 bills in the Senate every session and at least 80 percent were adopted into law. Jack’s retirement party at the Colony theater in Miami Beach was MC’d by Senator Bob Graham and Mark Russel, in attendance, every Supreme Court Justice in Florida, three United States Supreme Court Justices, federal Senators and Congressman from throughout the U.S., and many CEOs and prominent business-persons and social service provider in our community. We raised over $1 million at the event in 1992, which went to build and operate the Overtown health center in his Senate district, which was later named after Jefferson Reaves.
During legislative session, I met and befriended a young State Senator in those years and after, Jack retired from politics, I joined Senator Javier Souto in 1993 in his first campaign for the County Commission. I have known few men to display the type of courage in his fight for his country as Javier. I served with Javier as his Chief of Staff for almost two decades and together we re-wrote almost the entire Code in Unincorporated Miami-Dade County related to quality of life, safety and aesthetics for residential and commercial property. We wrote the County’s noise ordinance, which was also adopted by most if not all of the municipalities and was challenged by a well-known nightclub against the City of Miami Beach and upheld by the Florida Supreme Court.
We drafted zoning legislation which took adult entertainment establishments out of residential neighborhoods, along with noise generating industrial uses, but we provided an amortization period for those businesses to recuperate their financial investments. We did many consumer laws including requiring all commercial shopping centers, strip malls and gas stations to brightly illuminate their parking lots to 1 candle power lumens in order to reduce crimes of robbery, assault and murder. We required cash registers, including drive through restaurants, to display merchandise to the consumer as the merchandise was charged. That does not even include the close to one billion dollars in capital improvements that Senator Souto invested in East Kendall, West Kendall, Westchester and Fontainebleau throughout his term as County Commissioner, Mayor and County Manager for Unincorporated District 10.
I also served briefly (11 months) as Chief of Staff to Commissioner Zapata in district 11, when he was first elected, whom I had met and assisted since his first run for office in the West Kendall Community Council.
I have owned two homes in my lifetime and both have been in Unincorporated Miami-Dade County in West Kendall. My first was new construction because it meant affordability for a young married couple and more square foot for the dollar invested. Unfortunately, I had to sell my first home because my wife lost her ability to walk and ended up in powerchair. Less than 40 percent of the house was comfortably accessible to a wheelchair and the conversion costs were too high. I then found a 4/3 house in a new development further West and the developer was willing to work with me to move all the non-load bearing walls to turn it into a 2400 square foot 3/2.5 house where every single room including the 1/2 bath was accessible to my wife. I only had to pay the developer’s architect to draft the new plans according to my sketches and run the plans through the County’s Building and Zoning Department. I have lived in this house for 22 years how and it is paid in full.
Except for Javier and Aldo, few of you know that in the last 25 years of my public service, I have not only worked to serve our community with good public policy, always serving those in need in our community and doing good for others, never asking anything in return for myself. I’ve built a lifetime of knowledge, political acumen, but most importantly friends in the public and private sectors. I have led a quiet and private life, because outside my work I have dedicated myself as caregiver for my invalid wife whom I’ve known for 37 years and have been married to for 32 of those years. I have not been interested in seeking public office even in my younger years because I value my privacy and my home life.
Now comes the reason for this lengthy explanation of who I am and my career in public service. A few weeks ago, an ordinance was filed for first reading, which was waived out of committee and is on the Agenda for first reading, Item 5D, which seeks to change the zoning code in all of Unincorporated Miami-Dade County, turning single family residential neighborhoods where middle working-class homeowners, property taxpayers and voters chose to invest their life savings by purchasing not only a house, but a neighborhood, a community and a lifestyle in which to raise their children and retire.
As someone who has walked knocked on every home with a registered voter since in at least 9 campaigns since 1993, from 67th Avenue to 167th Avenue from Killian to SR 836, I can tell you nobody knows about this law because property owners were not noticed of this zoning change as part of their proposed tax notice and I am certain they will not be notified when you send them their tax bill this month. This horrendous policy will awaken a sleeping bear. As someone who has never lost a campaign managing 2 Senate elections, 9 County Commission elections and one Countywide election for an amendment to Article 7 for the Westchester Cultural Center, I can tell you the voters of Unincorporated Miami-Dade County, Westchester, Kendall, West Kendall and West Dade are the bell weather for Miami-Dade County. As UMSA votes, so goes Miami-Dade County.
I have lost sleep over this insane proposal, and I spent this weekend putting together information and copies of the ordinance to send to the presidents of close to 150 homeowner associations and approximately 8,000 quality 5 voters and community leaders in UMSA, but I decided to let cooler heads prevail and write to all of you instead in hopes that either this poorly analyzed public policy is reconsidered or proper notice is provided to every owner and taxpayer of a single family home in UMSA. This policy shows, a defect in Miami-Dade County governance, which Senator Miguel Diaz de la Portilla tried to correct two decades ago by proposing the incorporation of UMSA into the City of Miami-Dade County, to stop the property tax hemorrhaging with the annexations of it most valuable commercial property folios and protect property owners and voters from policy decisions from County Commissioners that did not represent those voters.
I’ve thought about a hybrid whereby the County Commission district boundaries are redrawn so that five County Commissioners represent entirely Unincorporated Miami-Dade County and the remaining 8 represent the incorporated areas. All 13 vote on Countywide policy, but only the 5 UMSA elected commissioners vote on UMSA municipal ordinances that only impact UMSA, the annual budget for UMSA and zoning matters related to UMSA, otherwise UMSA will continue to be the bastard child of Miami-Dade County. Most UMSA residents have to travel 20 to 25 miles (50 miles roundtrip) to their “City” hall inside downtown City of Miami during working hours, taking time off from work, quite a raw deal.
I want to be left alone in my retirement to dedicate more time for my wife. I don’t desire to seek political office. I am one of the best fundraisers in this community and do have a lot of friendships that I have established in the radio, television and print media over my career. I have provided some points below concerning Item 5D on your Agenda that I was prepared to share with my community this weekend but pull back. I hope you will look at these points and reconsider moving forward with a vote on this issue.
Although my preference is that this bad policy is withdrawn from further consideration, if the sponsors decide to move forward then they should at a minimum follow the requirement for Miami-Dade County sponsored zoning applications and private sector sponsored zoning applications and notify by mail every single impacted homeowner and taxpayer in Unincorporated Miami-Dade County.
Item 5D Points to Consider:
- This law changes the character of all single-family residential neighborhoods in the unincorporated areas, where middle class property taxpayers like me have invested their life savings.
- This law will create conditions of slum and blight in Unincorporated Miami-Dade County by turning established neighborhoods with single family homes into multifamily houses. Commissioner Zapata always told me that if Kendall did not incorporate into a City to protect its own governance and destiny, the County would eventually turn it into an area of slum and blight. I did not realize how soon the beginning of his prophecy would be fulfilled. The foolish Westchester residents that opposed the recent incorporation study for that community under the wise dean of the Board, County Commissioner Javier Souto, who could also see what was coming, will also live to regret their hasty decision.
- This law destroys the residential quality of life for middle class taxpayer’s neighborhoods and turns them into high density multi-family neighborhoods, thereby increasing crime, traffic, and reducing the quality of County services.
- More density means longer Police response time in Unincorporated Miami-Dade County and longer response times for Fire and Rescue services, putting the lives of our families at risk.
- Increased crime because you have apartment units in single family neighborhoods rented to individuals who don’t undergo criminal and credit background check as is customary for those renting an apartment unit from a leasing company.
- More density means higher property taxes
- However, the owners who purchased their homes in Kendall, Westchester, South Dade and North Dade, did so under a legal zoning code you are now changing without notifying the impacted property owners as required by your own laws and zoning process.
- Zoning applications initiated by Miami-Dade County government require mailing notices by U.S. mail to affected property owners no later than 30 days prior to the hearing. A courtesy notice of hearing shall also be mailed to the president of any homeowners’ association impacted by the County’s application.
- In this case notices of this proposed Zoning Change by Government should have been mailed to the presidents of all homeowner associations in Unincorporated Miami-Dade County as well as every owner of a single-family house.
- This is a law that avoids the zoning process required of the County under the law and yet destroys the lifetime financial investment and quality of life of every single owner of a house in Unincorporated Miami-Dade County neighborhoods.
- You just sent these homeowners in the unincorporated Miami-Dade County area a property tax notice and will send them a tax bill in a week or so. Why didn’t you provide all homeowners at no additional cost within the same tax bill notice about your proposed zoning change and offer them an opportunity to testify for or against the law?
- State law also requires an advertised and noticed public hearing held after 5 PM to allow working class property owners to attend. These hearings should be in the City of UMSA that you are impacting not 20 to 25 miles away in downtown City of Miami.
- This law is probably a violation of Florida Statute 70.001, the “Bert J. Harris, Jr., Private Property Rights Protection Act.”
- There are only two county commissioners who represent fully unincorporated districts and they have done so for almost 30 years, Commissioner Javier Souto from District 10 and the other almost 20 years Commissioner Joe Martinez, from District 11. This is presented in a time that District 11, which is 100 percent unincorporated and is my District, has no representation in the county.
- Commissioners Souto and Commissioner Martinez should have been consulted before introducing a law that mostly impacts the hundreds of thousands of homeowners in their respective districts.
- This is what term limits and having Commissioners who don’t really represent Unincorporated Miami-Dade County voters, allowed to legislate new laws that impact the quality of life in the Unincorporated neighborhoods.
- County will not enforce any protections under this law when County refuses to enforce illegal MFUs under existing Code enforcement laws in UMSA for two years.
- State law already accommodates extended families and elderly parents through in-law quarters, including providing tax incentives, so intellectually dishonest to state this is to accommodate our elderly. Since the County has failed to provide additional single family home housing stock driving up the costs because of the limited supply (basic economics 101), many residents my age are taking advantage of the State law and adding an in-law quarter for themselves and moving into it so their children and grandchildren can occupy the main house.
- If people want to buy a duplex in a neighborhood zoned for duplexes or triplexes they can.
- For almost 50 years Miami-Dade County has followed a process for providing adequate single family and multi-family housing stock for its residents, as outlined in its own Comprehensive Development Master Plan, which is our policy tool for managing population growth.
- Since its adoption in 1974, one of the CDMP’s driving principles was quote: to provide adequate housing for all segments of the community, including for low and moderate income persons. Furthermore, Plans made at various levels of government should be coordinated with each other and should involve citizen participation and input during the entire process.
- Like the self induced economic crises at the federal level due to bad public policy decisions by the current Administration, Miami-Dade County’s housing crises is also self induced and a direct result of poor planning and poor public policies including the Eastward Ho and Urban Infill policies that have led to an increase of luxury or high end housing stock, not for Miami-Dade residents but for real-estate investors outside of Florida and in Latin America seeking to find vacation homes and safe shelters for wealth. You have thousand of condo units in the ivory towers that are empty for most of the year. Just drive downtown and look up and see how few lights are on in the evening depending on the season. I have friends that live in some of these buildings and only fractions of the units on each floor are occupied. God help us with traffic gridlock if the fortunes turn in Latin America and those condos are dumped on the open market as has happened in the past and real Miami-Dade County residents purchase and occupy all those vacant units.
- This ordinance legalizing rental efficiencies in single family residential homes and will also continue to encourage the phenomenon we are witnessing for the first time in this County with out of State investment firms purchasing single family homes, including many containing illegal efficiencies and renting them out as real-estate investment. Those investment firms are not part of our community or neighborhoods and as long as they can recoup their investment, they don’t care what happens to our neighborhoods. I have one of these behind my house that was divided into a fourplex with 6 exterior doors, which I reported multiple times to Code enforcement through a Commission office two years ago and Code Enforcement refused to enforce the law, so why should anyone think Code Enforcement can manage the chaos this will bring to UMSA.
- You can’t expect our children and grandchildren to raise their own children in million dollar micro size condos or in these 400 square foot garage efficiencies, that is why when they go away for college, they don’t come back to our community. Demand for low and moderate housing stock including single family homes, far exceeds capacity and yet this Board refuses to follow its own planning process under its own CDMP and its own process for expanding the EAU and the UDB to prevent the depletion of housing stock for its poor and middle-class residents. Middle class wage earners in this County should be able to afford to purchase a single-family house just like they can anywhere else in Florida and in the United States. Since Miami-Dade County policies were adopted for Eastward Ho and no expansion of developable land in the Unincorporated Areas, Miami is now officially one of the most expensive places to live in on par with Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Denver and Chicago.
- Finally, I hope the true policy intent behind this ordinance and the $80 million in property tax funded rental assistance monies in this year’s budget is not as a policy tool to destroy our communities in order to accommodate the thousands of migrants crossing the border on a daily basis, most of who at some point will seek a warm climate with a Spanish speaking culture. I trust this Board stipulated that only residents who have resided in this County for at least five years can qualify for the assistance. Otherwise, these two public policies combined are a welcome mat for a huge influx of migrants and homeless individuals from other states.
This opinion piece was written by Bernardo Escobar, who has spent more than 37 years in public service