Even as the skeletons of half-finished condominiums and luxury high-rises emerge along Miami's skyline, the City of Miami has been tearing down affordable housing. The historically black community of Liberty City is the only neighborhood in Miami-Dade County where population has declined in the past 10 years. Many residents have become homeless or been forced to move, opening the neighborhood to gentrification.
Instead of waiting for the city government to solve the housing shortage, local activist Max Rameau and a core group of organizers began meeting with Liberty City residents, many of them homeless, to talk about housing issues in the neighborhood. Out of these weekly meetings, the blueprint for Umoja Village—“Unity” in the East African language of Kiswahili—was formed.
On October 23, 2006, homeless residents and organizers erected a shantytown on public land at the corner of 62nd Street and NW 17th Avenue. Once the site of low-income apartments, the lot had been vacant since the building was demolished by the city in 1998. By reclaiming this lot for low-income housing, Umoja established a direct link between the people and the land, and staked out their right to stay in the neighborhood.
Starting with 10 full-time residents, the village quickly grew to a maximum capacity of 50 people. A drug- and alcohol-free zone from the beginning, Umoja offered a safe space to put down roots and work for a communal cause. Makeshift homes built from plywood, cardboard, tarps, and donated mattresses soon filled the lot in neat rows. Some walls were covered in colorful murals or marked with messages supporting Umoja's mission for “Housing Now.”
“Liberty Café” served as a gathering spot and communal kitchen, stocked with donated food, where villagers cooked over oil drum grills and washed dishes in buckets of soapy water. Within two weeks of opening, the once-homeless residents had taken almost complete control of the day-to-day operations of their new home, growing food, piecing together a library of donated books, and deciding in weekly meetings how to settle disagreements and distribute resources.
Umoja Village directly confronted and, for 50 individuals, provided a solution to the problem of homelessness. But the impact of the village has much deeper roots and implications. Amanda Seaton, one of the core organizers of the project, explains, “Throughout the [African] diaspora, there is a history of people not controlling or owning the land that they live on.” Fighting for justice is difficult without the dignity that comes from being able to meet basic needs. And that ability, Umoja residents and organizers believe, is rooted in land and in community. As one resident stated, “I want to be a man again. I want to be able to come home from work and be in a house and be a man with my family and feel like a man again instead of going somewhere else and feeling like a burden.”
In April 2007, a tipped candle ignited a fire that destroyed Umoja Village. The land is once again vacant, this time surrounded by a fence, though the Umoja community still hopes to see permanent housing built on the site. A new project spearheaded by Max Rameau is petitioning the city of Miami to build 123,564 new units of affordable housing by the year 2025. Meanwhile, many of the residents and activists continue to meet each Sunday to cook a meal together, maintaining the community support generated by the village. As Max declared on the morning after the fire, “We're going to make sure that even if [the residents are] not here physically, they're going to have Umoja with them wherever they're at.”