Elena Bondarenko is a lawyer. Since 2017, she has been with the Downtown Development Authority, where she handles government relations, land-use and zoning issues, as well as legislative and policy initiatives that affect Downtown Miami.
Elena was born in Russia’s far-east, in the city of Vladivostok, closer to Tokyo than Moscow. By age 17, she finished high school and two years of college simultaneously. Ok, smart girl. Her parents moved to Toronto, as is the case with most immigrants, looking for a better future for the kids. But her hometown, surrounded by water, had claimed a special place in her psyche that Toronto couldn’t quite satisfy.
Visiting Miami, the proverbial love at first sight occurred. Miami became her new home, and she assumed a role in shaping its history.
Beginnings are seldom easy. Elena had to commute from Boca Raton to FIU College of Law in Miami, where she graduated second of her class — really first but for a technicality — while rearing a toddler as a single mother. Not to mention English was not her first language. Somehow, that is one detail that gets lost about immigrants, her tenacity. And, as we shall see, the commitment to the true definition of citizenship.
A Woman of Consequence
Right out of school, Elena got a job at a law firm representing the interests of developers in zoning and environmental matters. Later, she also practiced construction and condo association law. On her free time, she volunteered for causes such as creating schools for the emerging downtown. She was now living in Brickell. Having worked with development and government, she knew about infrastructure planning and impact fees — imposed by local governments for public services, including schools. Yet, there were no schools in the greater downtown. That chasm made her want to get involved. “Through research, I found that thousands of units were approved every year, and millions in impact fees were collected without plans for building schools to serve the new residents.”
She joined the PTA and led an extensive advocacy campaign for the expansion of Brickell’s Southside Elementary and its conversion to a K-8. “At the beginning, every public official recited in our face the archaic notion that there were no kids in Brickell. Every bit of free time I had, I fought the battle for the urban core’s ‘ghost’ children and their right for neighborhood schools. I worked with the City and MDCPS on the K-8 application and drafting ordinances to encourage developers to invest in the expansion of schools. This pro-bono project resulted in the DDA offering me a leadership position, allowing me to focus my career on helping my neighborhood and heading their education advocacy efforts. I’m proud to say that Southside is now a K-8.”
DN: Switching from a private law firm to the DDA, a quasi-governmental agency, meant a pay cut… Any regrets?
EB: Not at all. No money can buy happiness! I wake up excited every morning, all because of the work I do.
DN: What do you do at the DDA?
EB: Work with our elected officials and decision makers at all levels of government to further the interests of the DDA district in the areas of development, the environment, resiliency, homelessness, education, and urban planning. In addition to advising the executive staff on matters of local government law, procurement, ethics, grants, and contract law. In other words, help those in need, fight for our children, make my favorite city beautiful, resilient, and livable for all.
“I still get to be a land use lawyer, but now I get to fight for what is in the best interest of our downtown.”
DN: One of downtown’s most pressing and complex issues is homelessness.
EB: “Homelessness has a direct effect on what we want to accomplish in Downtown, walkability, economic vitality, safety and a better quality of life.”
DN: Not easy to tackle…
EB: Miami has one of the most complex legal/logistical frameworks in the country for dealing with homelessness. I have been working on this issue as an attorney, looking into regulatory reason as to why homelessness is still so prevalent and how we can help. In the process, it amazed me how much of the decision-making was done from behind a desk by individuals with little understanding of the true battles that are fought on the sidewalk. I made sure to go on outreach and health visits with the Lazarus Project, police, and the IDEA Needle Exchange Program. An important factor in homelessness is substance abuse and mental health. We need to treat these two problems in a more innovative manner, forming teams of professionals and recovered peers, for example. Housing is a factor, sure, but many of the chronic homeless are not ready to live alone.
[For an in-depth conversation with Elena Bondarenko about homelessness and the Pottinger Law, plus a Facts Sheet the DDA produced for residents and the police regarding the homeless, please see the section “Neighborhood: Downtown-News.com.]
DN: Half of Miami’s population are women and all the City of Miami Commissioners are men. Your resume reads like a perfect roadmap to politics. Do you see a future in politics?
Elena rolls her eyes as if saying, are you kidding? No, she can do more for downtown from where she is. And her contagious laugh roars bringing the conversation to an end.