Little Haiti

There’s innate wisdom in the citizens of predominantly Black neighborhoods resistance to change, even change intended to “improve” their neighborhoods. All too often, change has meant Black folks leave.

A case in point is Little Haiti. There, displacement of residents caused by proposed Special Area Plans is the result of massive up-zoning requested by developers to build high-rise mixed-use buildings in a mainly low-rise residential neighborhood.

To understand the effect that up-zonings, large and small, have on all of Miami’s predominantly Black neighborhoods, you must first acknowledge that most of these neighborhoods could benefit from new development. The homes tend to be older and smaller; the stores rely mainly on nearby customers; the residents are elderly and on social security, or younger with kids trying to make ends meet. There are more rental properties than resident-owned ones.

The question is: How much new development and how quickly? Owners welcome the rise in property values while renters dread the rise in their rent. The answer is finding the proper balance.

Up-zoning is intended to increase density: the number of units per acre. Other than density, there are only two other ways to spur new development where none is happening: reduce off-street parking, or provide taxpayer subsidy, which can come in many varied ways.

Since taxpayer subsidy is always in short supply, and reduced parking only a small percentage of overall cost, new private development requires up-zoning to make a project profitable. Single family homes and two-story duplexes are limited to 9 units per acre. In Little Haiti, one SAP developer is applying for up-zoning from 5 stories to 24 stories, and from 65 units per acre to 150 or more per acre.

For Miami to grow, up-zoning is economically necessary. The Miami 21 zoning code wisely has “succession” rules and “community benefits” requirements. “Succession” requires up-zoning to be gradual, while “community benefits” require the owner of any up-zoned property to “share the wealth” anticipated from the up-zoning.

To protect neighborhoods from too much development too fast, think of “community benefits” like the valve on your garden hose. When the valve is closed tight—too many community benefits are demanded—new private development goes elsewhere. When the valve is wide open—too few of the community’s needs are met—new private development overwhelms the neighborhood like a tidal wave. Tidal waves cause people to flee their homes, especially renters. In Black neighborhoods, it’s called “gentrification.”

Displacement of existing residents by newcomers attracted from outside the community is the issue. “Inclusionary zoning” requiring a percentage of “affordable” units in new high-rise apartment buildings is important. However, unless existing residents control the land in their neighborhood, displacement is only delayed.

Needed most is the political will to balance development pressure with the control valve of “community benefits.” Whoever’s hand is on that valve must answer this: Who will be encouraged to stay, and who will be forced to leave?

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