Miami Tentatively Approves Mandatory Affordable Housing in Parts of Downtown

Photography by Monica McGivern
Rent in Miami is not quite as expensive as New York, San Francisco, and other major metro areas. But the Magic City's median income — around $46,000 — is absurdly tiny, so renters here spend some of the largest portions of their salaries on housing in America. This is not an affordable town.

Back in 2016, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Jordan tried to alleviate that issue by passing what's called "inclusionary zoning," a law that would force developers to build affordable units in new buildings. That failed due to bellyaching from other members of the mostly conservative county commission.

But City of Miami Commissioner Ken Russell last night successfully lobbied his town's leaders to tentatively adopt the first-ever mandatory affordable-housing ordinance in city history. The commission agreed to force developers building in the "T6-24B" zoning area — parts of the urban core near the Adrienne Arscht Center, club district, and the border with Overtown — to create apartments affordable to residents making between 60 to 140 percent of the city's median income. In exchange, developers will receive zoning benefits including, for example, allowing slightly larger buildings than typical. The measure is aimed at helping the city's working class, as well as low-income individuals, but will need to pass a second commission reading before formally becoming law.

"The world of market-rate development is afraid of affordability, but it needs to embrace it," Russell told New Times. "Miami has a housing crisis and inclusionary zoning is definitely one solution. When we recognize that affordability can be blended into a neighborhood or development and that it doesn’t need to be compartmentalized, we will start encouraging a workforce of folks that can now live near their work. This affects transit, quality of life, and will build up our community."
Russell, a registered Democrat who holds a nonpartisan city commission seat, launched an aborted bid for U.S. Congress in 2017 and was criticized for taking donations from real-estate and building lobbyists — groups he has criticized. But those groups have long fought stricter affordable-housing laws in Miami —  often arguing that the exceedingly high land prices in Miami (and most urban areas) make it cost-prohibitive to price apartments for the working class.  (Others also criticize state lawmakers for refusing to raise the minimum wage to livable levels and banning cities from doing so.)

But Miami-Dade's city governments have instead passed toothless "voluntary" affordable-housing programs that have demonstrably not led to the construction of more economical units. (The same can be said for "voluntary" affordable-housing programs nationwide.) The nonprofit Urban Institute authored a scathing report lambasting the city's developer class for blocking the construction of affordable apartments. As it stands, many of Miami's new, downtown condo buildings are priced for vacationers, outside investors, or the international 1 percent, and typically not for the 2.7 million Miami-Dade residents.

As it stands, the ordinance impacts a small area of downtown, but, if it succeeds, it could usher in a wave of similar laws across the county. Under the new rule, 14 percent of a new apartment building needs to be workforce housing, or 7 percent needs to be "affordable" for lower-income residents. New condo buildings must build 10 percent workforce or 5 percent affordable units.

Russell said the city tested the idea by approving a few voluntary up-zonings for developers who wanted to try it out. "The tradeoff seems to be working for both developers and residents," he added.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.