Miami-Dade's Richest Cities Fight Middle-Class Housing Requirement in New Towers

A new county ordinance could require developers to incorporate more workforce housing for the middle class into projects larger than 20 units.
A new county ordinance could require developers to incorporate more workforce housing for the middle class into projects larger than 20 units.

It's no secret that Miami's high cost of living is one of the biggest problems in the metro area. With median rent for a one-bedroom apartment nearly $2,000, the county's millennial population has largely fled. A 2012 study found that Miami is the least affordable city in the nation for the middle class, while another shows that residents can afford to save only a measly $18 per month

"People can't afford the realty anymore. They're being priced out of the market," Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Jordan says.

That's why Jordan is proposing a rule requiring developers to incorporate apartments in reach of middle-class professionals such as teachers and cops into any project larger than 20 units. But Miami-Dade's higher-density, luxury-market aimed cities such as Avenura and Sunny Isles Beach are already pushing back hard against the plan.

Here's how Jordan's idea would work: The plan would require a portion of new buildings to incorporate so-called workforce housing, which targets people making $29,000 to $67,000 — a figure based on percentages of the area median income ($48,100). 

In exchange, developers would get to add more units to their projects than current zoning allows, something known as a density bonus. Under Jordan's plan, the rule would apply to not only unincorporated Miami-Dade but also each of the 34 municipalities in the county.

But some of those cities are not happy about the idea. Last month, the Aventura City Commission passed a resolution opposing Jordan's ordinance in its high-rise community.

"My feeling is, right now, to take this kind of ordinance and make it mandatory is a travesty," said Commissioner Robert Shelley, a real-estate developer. "It would be almost impossible to have workforce housing put into a building that's geared toward condominiums of a certain price range, etc."

"I'm in favor of workforce housing but not a mix-and-match within the community," he added later. Mayor Enid Weisman also said the law would be tough to comply with, given the city is only three square miles.

The city attorney for Sunny Isles Beach, Hans Ottinot, has also given written notice of the city's strong opposition to the ordinance. 

"The commission is in support of workforce housing in general; we just believe there's a better mechanism, and the mechanism should be locally controlled," Ottinot tells New Times, adding that Sunny Isles Beach already gives density bonuses to developers who build workforce housing.

Though Miami-Dade County already has a voluntary program that gives density bonuses to builders, it's not mandatory, and Jordan admits the ordinance has been "met with very limited success." Truly Burton, who represents the Builders Association of South Florida, says the incentive program needs to be "bulked-up, made more muscular, more attractive" (which, can we just say, might be the most Miami demand possible).

"It's an important and laudable community goal to have workforce housing, but having just one incentive — a density bonus that may or may not work — is an illusory incentive at best," Burton says.

Burton, like the other dissenters, worries about unintended consequences, such as the other occupants of a building essentially subsidizing the cheaper units or having the fees passed on to them if a developer opts to pay the penalty instead of incorporating workforce housing.

Since the ordinance passed a first reading in June, Jordan has eased up on exactly how mandatory it should be. She tells New Times she's spoken with representatives from different cities about revising the plan in a way that would allow municipalities to opt out if they can't comply or are already addressing the need for workforce housing on their own. There's also been talk of exempting cities with populations of less than 10,000. 

"We're not trying to force them to adopt what we're doing in unincorporated Dade, but at least recognize that if you don't do something, we're going to end up being like Key West or Miami Beach, which is already facing the challenge of not being able to have their workforce afford to live where they work," Jordan says. 

It's important to note that, by the county's definition, workforce housing is not the same as affordable housing, because there are no government subsidies involved.

"People get scared and think we're talking about getting Section 8 residents here or low-income residents here. These are usually points used by developers to scare the community," Jordan says. "Workforce housing is meant to help our middle-class residents: our firefighters, our nurses, our assistants in our offices, our licensed professionals, those who are not getting subsidies. It's the middle class that we are leaving out of everything."

This is why Miami remains unaffordable for a huge percentage of the population: Solutions to the problem just aren't that easy, and it seems unlikely that any one compromise would both create more reasonably priced homes and satisfy the building industry, the county, and governments in all 34 cities.

A public hearing has been scheduled for September 13 at 2 p.m. before the Metropolitan Services Committee if you have any thoughts or ideas about the proposed ordinance. Yes, a Tuesday afternoon: the perfect time for middle-class workers to voice their thoughts.

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