Recap of “Let’s Talk (un)Affordable Miami”

The image of glitz and glamor, expensive cars and vibrant nightlife can be a distraction from the affordable housing issue in Miami-Dade, but the panel discussion at “Let’s Talk (un)Affordable Miami” Wednesday, May 11th painted a dire picture. At least 60% of all renters in Miami-Dade County are cost-burdened; 82% could not afford to purchase a single-family home. If that weren’t enough, factoring in other costs of living such as transportation, Miami is the one of the least affordable metropolitan areas in the country. A typical Miamian can expect to pay an average of 62% of their total income on housing and transportation alone.

There have been a few occasions in my life when I have been technically “homeless.” I think my beloved cat, Bruce Wayne, has just now forgiven me for making him stay with my grandmother in 2014. And through the various upheavals that had led to these “situations,” I have become personally acquainted with the soul-crushing reality of the bureaucracy of being poor. Here is where I would qualify my situation against the inherent reasons many would not expect me to fall under these circumstances. For one, I am college educated , intelligent, and come from a stable, working class family. Unfortunately, without backup resources in addition to a decent support system, poverty can happen suddenly and it will fold in on you. Yes, even you.

And when it did, my first thought was always, “How am I going to pay rent?”

During these times, and often enough during times of bounty as well, I had given consideration to moving to the promised land of tech talent and gorgeous year-round weather, Silicon Valley. And in researching this as a viable option, over time, I would come to realize that this choice may well aggravate any housing security problems I may have. In fact, the growing housing affordability crisis in the Greater San Francisco area first introduced me to the idea that unaffordable housing was more of a political problem than a personal failing. At the time that I write this, I would invite any of you to follow the slow but steady creep of “tech” into the city of Oakland. How Oakland’s government and new commercial interests mitigate rising housing costs with their historically working class populations will be a case study in either a triumph or folly for affordable housing in a rapidly urbanizing America.

While San Francisco’s runaway housing costs have gotten much more national attention, the reality that long-time Miami residents are facing housing insecurity across broad income spectrum seemed palpable facing a sold-out crowd at last week’s panel discussion.

Finger Pointing

To make sense of this chaos, who or what do we have to blame for Miami-Dade’s affordability crisis? For one, much of the new development going up in the City of Miami are luxury properties. Even before the Panama Papers confirmed a long held suspicion as to who was buying these properties and why, the Federal Government found there to be reason enough to crack down on real estate deals specifically in our market for properties over $1 million. More tellingly, County Commissioner Daniella Levine-Cava noted that just before the release of the Panama Papers, the Miami-Dade County Commission was scheduled to vote to condemn the Feds for their crackdown.

To exacerbate the situation, new luxury development has slowly crept into land and real estate that had previously been considered untouchable and relegated to the poor. Mandy Bartle of the South Florida Community Land Trust and Dr. Ned Murray of the FIU Metropolitan Center both noted that I-95 was strategically placed on high ground; 15 years previous this corridor would not have been touched, but has only recently been declared as “too valuable” for affordable housing projects. This comes suspiciously after the publishing of several articles in prominent national publications over the last few years highlighting the vulnerability of South Florida’s most valuable real estate to sea level rise.

How could we let this happen? At several points in the conversation it was highlighted that the laws and politics of Miami-Dade have historically favored the developers over economically and ecologically sustainable growth. While we can complain, and even joke, about the parade of corrupt and inept civic leaders in both our local and state governments, we as a whole are still electing these people either via votes or abstinence from the political process. If there was one message to take away from this, it’s that Miami-Dade residents are all in this together.

What Now?

It has gotten to a point in Miami-Dade that there will not be a single strategy that will alleviate the housing costs we are facing. As a community we face an uphill battle that requires a comprehensive strategy to ease the damage that has already been done and mitigate any future battles. Dr. Murray mentioned early on in the evening that he had helped develop a scorecard in 2007, aptly named the Municipal Scorecard for Affordable Housing Delivery, that measures a city’s ability to accommodate and deliver affordable housing. The four areas that are measured are “Policy & Management,” “Planning and Landings,” “Dedicated Funding,” and “Institutional Capacity.” Miami-Dade County is currently only in its infant stage of building the institutional capacity needed to facilitate the other three yardsticks.

Specific areas of strategy that were brought up through the course of the evening include:

Land Trusts and Land Banking

I had mentioned before that one of the speakers on the panel was Mandy Bartle of the South Florida Community Land Trust, who spoke a great deal about what her organization does as well as the land trust model in general. In clearest terms, a land trust buys land, develops on it and then sells those homes to those who qualify for affordable housing. Homeowners can only sell their homes to others who qualify for the land trust homes in order to keep those homes affordable. Any equity from that sale is split between the homeowner and the land trust in order to help fund building more homes.

This is where the discussion of the I-95 corridor exposes the importance of these types of organizations. Had a non-profit organization been buying these properties when no one wanted them, they could today be reserved for affordable housing initiatives, such as land trust development. This practice is referred to as land banking.

Develop Small Infill

Despite the known importance of Florida’s natural wetlands and the transportation planning and logistics involved in moving development further west, it would seem like the Urban Development Boundary for Miami-Dade gets pushed further every few years while infill lots closer to the metropolitan center remain underdeveloped.

In conjunction with land banking, land trusts, and government support, these empty lots can be used specifically to accommodate mixed use and mixed income housing, much like New York City’s affordable housing plan.

Equitable Transit-Oriented Development

One of the largest expenses for Miami locals next to housing, as mentioned earlier, is transportation. For as long as I have lived in South Florida, it has not been practical to live in Miami without a car. Between insurance costs, gas prices, and lengthy congested commutes, the cost of simply owning a car in Miami can rapidly eat into your monthly budget.

As I was writing this, I looked up the housing and transportation index for my own zip-code. If you happen to live in Coconut Grove, let it be known that the estimated cost burden for housing and transportation can be up to 84% of your income.

While the Miami-Dade Transit continues to unveil plans to expand their meager transportation lines both east and west, a key to bringing down that housing and transportation index is to prioritize development of affordable and mixed-income housing in areas well served by public transit, reducing both housing and transportation costs in one fell swoop.

Developer Incentives

Currently, Miami’s inclusionary zoning policy is voluntary. I actually managed to track down a PDF copy of the policy, and this apparent policy is a density bonus for including workforce or affordable housing. However, after real estate and construction cost, a market rate housing unit can cost between $150k to $200k per unit to build. Without subsidies or more robust incentives, those units are not going to be prioritized without a mandatory inclusionary policy.


Conversion of Section 8 housing to market rate isn’t the only threat to both current and future affordable housing units. For one, many existing units have suffered years of deferred maintenance and require a substantial investment to bring up to the county’s current building code.

For any new units going up, Miami-Dade does not have a “freeboard” mandate in its building code. Freeboard is a construction safety measure that compensates for unforeseen changes to a property’s flood vulnerability. Given that these construction practices typically bring down insurance rates, you would think that a minimum freeboard would be a slam dunk for an area where the water “comes in from 6 sides.”

Moving Forward

While we can talk about policies and initiatives sipping vodka tonics at quaint bars downtown, the one thing Miami-Dade county truly needs to get these initiatives off the ground is citizen involvement. The opposition to these measures have deep pockets and without organization and pressure from county residents, initiatives that create real change could be as good as dead on arrival.

During the discussion, Dr. Ralph Rosado of the Community Scholars in Affordable Housing and candidate for District 4 County Commissioner praised the Pinnacle Housing Group for building the first mixed-income project in the county, Brickell View Terrace. While I furiously scribbled notes, the gentleman sitting next to me audibly laughed and leaned over to comment on Pinnacle’s local campaign contributions. And while I couldn’t find any source to verify what kind of money has been contributed locally in recent years, Commissioner Bruno Barreiro’s affordable housing debacle in Miami’s Shenandoah neighborhood certainly illustrates the need for accountability and citizen involvement in local politics on this issue. Relevant to my previous comparison to Oakland’s impending housing crisis, it’s critical to note that Oakland faces its challenges in the heart of one of the most progressive regions in our nation. The battleground for equitable housing policy is on the municipal level.

As the evening wrapped up, a speaker from the audience underlined that, at the heart of this discussion, affordability is the numerator and income is the denominator. Much of  affordable housing policy is based on the percent of median income, and Miami-Dade has some of the lowest figures in median income compared to our cost of living expense. In order to fully serve our community with affordable housing, policy will have to accommodate families all the way up 180% of our median income. That, in itself, is an entirely separate uphill battle.

But, as they say, once more unto the breach, bro.

If you have any corrections or comments you would like to add, please feel free to join the discussion in the comment section below.

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