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Signature Miami-Dade affordable housing program off to a slow start

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava has proposed an aggressive plan to Gov. Ron DeSantis that lowers Florida’s COVID-19 vaccine age requirement.
Al Diaz
The Miami Herald
A core pillar of Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava's HOMES Plan to address the affordable housing crisis has barely spent any of the available money.

At a high profile press conference in September of 2022, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava announced an innovative pilot program aimed at helping struggling workers — including middle income workers — afford soaring rental rates.

A year later, the pilot program, loudly championed by county officials, has gotten off to a slow start. According to county data obtained by WLRN, only 222 houses have been subsidized so far — using up just 3 percent of the money available.

But Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava's office says the program is now picking up pace, with another 217 units already approved. She intends to fund the program once again in the proposed budget for the coming fiscal year.

The Workforce Housing Incentive Program (WHIP) aims to subsidize rental payments for families making between $29,250 to $136,500 for a family of four. The idea was to pay money directly to landlords to fill in the gap between what people can afford and what landlords might be able to charge on the open market.

“These are units that could be rented at market rate. There's no lack of demand for these units,” Levine Cava told WLRN last year when the program rolled out. “We have landlords who've said, ‘We will bring down the price, we will open our doors.’”

READ MORE: 'Every challenge creates an opportunity': Miami-Dade budget tries to turn housing crisis into 'win-win-win'

The problem is that few doors have opened.

Of the $15.5 million allocated for the program for the 2022-23 budget, only $412,000 had been spent between October 2022 and mid-August 2023.

That’s less than 3 percent of the available funding for the landlord subsidy.

The program represents a significant chunk of the Mayor's $85 million "HOMES Plan," an overall effort to address the affordable housing crisis.

Only $76,000 went to rental assistance for tenants who live in so-called “workforce” housing for middle class families. A total of 38 workforce rental units across the country received the landlord subsidy; $10 million was allocated for those landlords, with the potential to subsidize 5,000 rental units.

“This program was a pilot that was very, very unlike other programs that I have seen,” said Annie Lord, executive director of the advocacy group Miami Homes For All. “One of the risks of doing something like that is that it doesn't get taken up in the way that maybe was expected.”

When the program was proposed last year, Lord called the idea of using public dollars to subsidize rentals for middle income residents “problematic” and unlikely to help produce more affordability for residents. The biggest need for affordable housing is at the lower end of the economic spectrum, not towards the middle, she argued.

“One of the risks of doing something like that is that it doesn't get taken up in the way that maybe was expected.”
Annie Lord, executive director of the advocacy group Miami Homes For All.

The WHIP program also included a total of $5 million in subsidies for landlords to begin — or to continue — accepting Section 8 vouchers from the federal government.

Those federal vouchers assist truly low-income families by subsidizing their rents in the private rental market. The catch is that private landlords need to abide by federal guidelines to accept the funding, and they need to choose to do so.

Of the $5 million in possible subsidies for Section 8 housing, landlords only took $368,000, impacting a total of 184 housing units. Up to 2,500 Section 8 units were available for the funding.

Lord said she’s glad the county is attempting to increase the availability of Section 8 housing, even if it’s only had a marginal impact.

“They tried something, you know. Might be time to try something else,” she said.

Mayor Levine Cava's office told WLRN in an email that the program is picking up pace, and that 268 workforce units have now been approved — the landlords have just not been paid yet. Additionally, 465 units are awaiting final documentation from landlords and tenants to be approved.

Likewise, the office said 500 Section 8 units are awaiting additional documentation in order to receive the subsidy.

A total of ten different landlords have applied for different for subsidies under the program, the mayor's office said, potentially impacting 1,809 rental units.

A 'challenging' program

Exactly which landlords have received subsidies from the WHIP program is unclear. County records received by WLRN redacted the names of recipients.

Ana Veiga Milton was unsure how many of her family’s United Property Management units have received the annual subsidy, but she is positive that some have. The company is one of the largest landlords in Miami-Dade County.

“We have gotten some dollars already,” she told WLRN.

Landlord subsidies through the WHIP program are capped at a total of $2,000 per year per unit, for a minimum of three years, for a total of $6,000 in subsidies for each unit.

Veiga Milton told WLRN that a “coalition” of landlords, attorneys and advocates helped draft the legislation that started the program, her family’s company included. At a press conference last year, she spoke in support of the initiative.

The program is great, said Veiga Milton, but it has been “challenging.”

About half of the 300 or so applications sent by her company have been returned as incomplete, she estimated, although it’s not always clear why. Sometimes it’s hard to get the paperwork from tenants to apply, and sometimes there is a long lag time in hearing back from the county, she said.

“This is an attempt to try to control the rental market and to give some stability for families, so that they know they can actually stay in Miami-Dade County over the next three years,” said Veiga Milton. “I can tell you — those that have been able to take advantage of this program have been very relieved. It has been very positive for them.”

If all the $15.5 million in funds for the current fiscal year are not spent, the program allows for the Mayor’s office to use the remaining money for other affordable housing programs without having to get permission from the county commission.

Mayor Levine Cava's office told WLRN that $4.7 million in unused funds from the WHIP program has been reallocated to the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, an effort that started with federal funds during the pandemic.

That program has helpedmore than 21,000 families pay rent since it started in 2020, according to the county.

"Through the transfer of funds from WHIP, we will be able to continue supporting families whose applications are pending review," the mayor's office wrote.

The current proposed county budget for fiscal year 2023-24 includes $8.9 million in rollover funding for the WHIP program.

Budget negotiations and public meetings are ongoing.

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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