Housing

An outside view of phase one of the Liberty Square apartments. 

South Florida faces a housing crisis. The problem is not that there’s not enough housing. It’s simply that there’s not enough housing that’s affordable.

How big is the problem? Consider this: More than 60 percent of adults in South Florida spend over 30 percent of their income for housing, according to city planning experts.

That’s the highest rate of any major metropolitan area in the nation.

Valencia Gunder, who runs The Smile Trust, a nonprofit that helps families find housing they can afford, said affordable housing is “absolutely a top priority.”

If South Florida fails to act in a timely fashion, its problems will only mushroom.

Gunder said if affordable housing is not accessible, it “drives up the homeless population and makes displacement higher.” Community advocates and researchers say lawmakers should make adding more affordable housing units a priority. The response: County and city officials have partnered with private developers to add more affordable housing units – but even those are taking up more than 30 percent of people’s incomes.

Researchers are calling for other steps too:

• Implement rent control

• Earmark public funds to pay for construction of more affordable housing

• Revise zoning laws to accommodate affordable housing

• Increase wages so families have more disposable income

“It all has to be done together,” said Steven Pedigo, who co-wrote a report about the affordable housing crisis. “If it’s not affordable, it’s not accessible,” Gunder said. “The move-in fees, down payments, it’s ridiculous. It’s not matching the incomes. People are using more than half their income on housing,” she said.

“What’s unique in Miami is the income,” Pedigo said. “Other metro areas have expensive housing, but Miami is not expensive like D.C., San Francisco or New York. Miami’s wages and income are quite low compared to other metro areas.”

The problem crystallizes when rents are compared to incomes.

According to figures from HUD’s fair-market rent analysis, a two-bedroom unit in the Greater Miami Metropolitan Area, which includes Miami, Miami Beach and Kendall, rented for $1,351 in 2018 and $1,454 in 2019.

The latest HUD figures show that the median income for four people in Miami-Dade County is $54,900.

HUD ranks anyone who makes $47,450 a year in Miami-Dade as low-income; anyone making $29,650 is very low-income; and $17,800 or less qualifies as extremely low-income.

“There’s a huge debate around what is affordable housing,” Pedigo said. “We can talk about it for the poorest of the poor, or for workforce housing. That whole definition of how we deal with it is up there. A general rule of thumb is, how does someone live with a good quality of life? You don’t want residents spending more than 30% of income on housing.” Rent calculations apply HUD standards. A person qualifies for affordable housing if they make up to 60% of the area’s median income; workforce housing is 60% to 140% of the median income; and public housing is 30% of area median income. HUD’s fair-market analysis lists an efficiency in Miami-Dade in 2019 at $951 per month, or $11,412 per year. Someone classified as extremely low-income, which is $17,800 per year, has $6,388 left after paying for an efficiency. That’s 69 percent of total income.

Rent for a one-bedroom unit, which averages $1,147 per month, eats up an even bigger chunk: $13,764 a year, or 77 percent of total income. After paying for housing, residents also have to contend with utilities and necessities like food, phone and transportation. Luxuries like cable TV and dry cleaning are extra. The problem of affordable housing surfaced this past May when a report came out on “Miami’s Housing Affordability Crisis.”

Pedigo, who holds a graduate degree from the H. John Heinz III School for Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University, is a co-author of the report, along with Richard Florida. Florida founded the Creative Class Group, and Pedigo is the director of research for the Creative Class Group.

The growth of cities is an issue as well.

“It’s not just about growth, but how we do it equitably to where people can afford to live in their communities,” Pedigo said. Public funds to subsidize the cost of housing exists in all levels of government. The Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund is money for housing at the state level. Established by the Legislature in the 1990s, the Affordable Housing Trust Fund has generated about $6 billion since then, according to The Sun Sentinel.

Progress on other recommended steps has stalled as well.

On the issue of rent control, for example, bills that would have given local governments the authority to set up rent-control measures failed to get a full hearing in either the House or the Senate.

But Sen. Victor M. Torres Jr. (D-15) has vowed to re-introduce the bill again at the next legislative session, which begins in January 2020, coincidentally an election year.

Also adding to the crisis is the rise of housing prices.

“The last three to five years it has been worsening,” Pedigo said. “We haven’t kept up with demand for affordable housing.”

BROWARD'S CRISIS

The crisis of affordable housing is not limited in South Florida to Miami-Dade County alone. On May 7, 2019, the Broward County Commission unanimously accepted Florida International University’s 2018 “Broward County Affordable Housing Needs Assessment.”

Commissioner Nan H. Rich said the FIU study “debunks” Broward cities’ claims that the county doesn’t need affordable housing.

From 2017 through 2019, the Broward County Commission dedicated $5 million to affordable housing. The money helped build six hundred units of affordable housing, Rich said. Dale V.C. Holness, a District 9 commissioner elected in 2010 and the vice mayor, said he is “very focused” on affordable housing for his district.

He said District 9 has added over 100 units of affordable housing. His district includes all or some of Fort Lauderdale, Lauderdale Lakes, Lauderhill, North Lauderdale, Oakland Park, Sunrise, Tamarac, and Plantation. Holness admitted there is “a lot to be done.” “One is inclusionary zoning,” he said. “So when we have new construction, there’s affordable housing built in.” He said Broward County government needs to give developers bonus units for adding affordable units. “The concept is if developers build 200 units, 10 percent of that would be for affordable. We then give 10 or five units for the developers to have a profit,” Holness said. “Beyond cost incurred they’re made whole.”

Miramar City Commissioner Yvette Colbourne got the ball rolling on a living wage for city employees. The measure passed in 2015 raising public employee living wage to $12.50 per hour. Miramar has an Affordable Housing Board. Colbourne said Miramar wants to add affordable housing and is doing so through grant funding. The city has provided grants for home repairs, help for home purchases and rental assistance. There is a partnership with Habitat for Humanity to build six homes. The city’s town center development near City Hall is a public-private partnership with 40 affordable housing units. And the city has plans to build 230 affordable housing units for seniors.

LIBERTY SQUARE

In June 2019, the Miami Commission approved using $7.15 million from its Miami Forever Bond for five affordable and workforce housing rental developments. The money is part of $58.7 million that will be matched with about $180 million from housing developers. The Miami Forever Bond will pay $400 million, which will include affordable housing and four other categories. New housing units were unfurled on July 1, 2019, as part of the Liberty Square Rising project. The first phase has been completed. Altogether, there are nine phases, scheduled for completion in five years.

Liberty Square Phase Three will receive money from the Miami Forever Bond. The partnership between Miami-Dade County and Related Urban Development Group is part of a $300 million project to combine Liberty Square and Lincoln Gardens and build 1,455 units comprised of public housing, affordable housing, market-rate and home-ownership units to replace 709 public housing units. The new Liberty Square’s amenities include tile floors, wood cabinetry, granite countertops, a washer/dryer combo inside the unit, a children’s playground and secured access, controlled entry. A two-bedroom, one bathroom unit is a minimum of $872 per month, or $10,464 per year. That’s 58% of HUD’s budget of $17,800 for a low-income earner. Workforce housing for three bedrooms, two bathrooms is $1,600.

Crystal Corner, 37, moved to Liberty Square in 2009 to take advantage of public housing.“All of us that moved into the new development, the rent stayed the same,” said Corner, who is the president of the Liberty Square Resident Association. “Unless our income went up, the rent stayed the same.” Corner said she appreciates the way the project spreads out the public housing units – each phase will have about 70 – “compared to putting them all in one spot.” But she thinks there should be more.

Gunder would “absolutely not” consider voting for a candidate who does not have as a housing plan that does not eat up more than 30 percent of residents’ incomes. “To me that’s one of the biggest problems in South Florida.”

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