A potential affordable housing solution faces major roadblocks: local politics and residents
One potential way to make housing more affordable is to increase building density. But in a region that has gotten used to single-family housing, that's easier said than done.
San Francisco has long been the go-to example of how residents refusing to allow more housing units to be developed can lead to exploding housing costs.
But with much of the Bay Area’s tech scene moving to South Florida during the coronavirus pandemic, the potential impacts of NIMBYism — a not-in-my-backyard attitude towards new development — have come along for the ride.
The question now is: Will local governments in South Florida learn from the mistakes of local governments in California?
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South Florida has seen rents shoot up more than 30 percent over the last year alone, with Miami officially becoming the least affordable housing market in the nation. Everyone from restaurant workers to truck drivers and those who think of themselves as members of the middle class are feeling the pinch.
It’s a reality that is forcing a wholesale reevaluation of housing policy.
“The time is now where we really have to take a look at our housing stock and think about: How do we provide more affordable housing options?” said Laura Cantwell, the associate state director of the AARP of Florida.
The group, which advocates on behalf of retired and elderly Floridians, has zeroed in one one solution it says can make a massive difference in the affordable housing market, without relying on huge development projects.
The AARP proposes letting homeowners build extra units on their single-family properties. These units are sometimes known as accessory dwelling units, granny flats, in-law quarters and efficiencies.
Cantwell said the potential solution can both help keep elderly residents from being priced out and help younger generations alike.
“It’s really kind of going back to how we used to build houses. You may have your grandparent living in the accessory dwelling unit, and the child can help take care of their parent,” she said. “And also the grandparent can help with the grandchildren too. So it can really go both ways.”
Rising property taxes and insurance rates have caused widespread anxiety among the elderly in Florida, she said, leading some to worry about whether they can stay in Florida or not.
“We have done survey after survey after survey and we hear from our members that older adults want to remain in their home and in their community as they age in place,” she said.
Some research shows that allowing backyard units to be built would not only have an impact on affordable housing by increasing the housing supply, but it would also increase tax revenues for local governments.
A 2021 report from the American Enterprise Institute, a consultancy firm used by many governments, found that increasing density from one to two living units on many properties would "increase the vibrancy of commercial areas" by improving walkability and would also "yield a significant boost in tax revenue."
Many of the oldest homes in Florida have guest houses and granny flats that have been grandfathered in after zoning changes over the decades. Those zoning changes took place in the decades following World War II, when the craze was all about suburbanization. That’s when many cities and towns banned those extra units from being built.
Over time, those zoning decisions have changed public expectations for what a family friendly neighborhood looks like. Those shifting expectations often create tension at the community level when local lawmakers propose ideas that would bring housing policy closer to what it looked like in the pre-World War II era.
Early attempts were not fruitful
Some South Florida cities have made pushes towards letting homeowners build or rent granny flats in recent years, but the results have not been promising. The lessons learned from those cities could offer insight into the issue moving forward.
North Miami councilman Scott Galvin grew up in a home with a granny flat, in which his grandmother lived.
“North Miami used to allow them many, many decades ago,” said Galvin. “It was decided by the powers that be that they shouldn’t allow granny flats anymore. So they got rid of them and they’ve remained a forgotten part of our history until now.”
Galvin cited his grandfathered-in childhood home as one of the reasons he proposed an ordinance in North Miami last year that would allow homeowners to build extra units on their property that could be rented out. He also saw it as a clear way that the city could tackle the affordable housing issue without having to expend huge amounts of dollars on massive construction projects.
“There’s gotta be multiple ways to come at the issue, no one of them is going to solve it on its own, it’s got to be a cumulative effort,” said Galvin. “Not only are you addressing the affordable housing issue but you’re also helping the economic situation by giving somebody a secondary source of income.”
But at the city commission and from the public, he received pushback.
The final version of his idea that passed was highly regulated and impractical. The ordinance would not allow homeowners to merely convert part of their property for a different usage. Instead, they would have to build detached and separate units that were no smaller than 500 square feet, something that would drive up costs. The final version also required homeowners to get a business tax receipt before renting out the unit, and those units would require an annual inspection from the city.
Galvin acknowledged that few homeowners would choose to bring code inspectors onto their property, much less annually. But he said it was the only way it could get passed.
“I needed three votes to implement it, and as a result the staff came up with having some inspections and some fees as a nod towards having some control over this,” he said.
The ordinance was passed in August of 2021.
“To my knowledge, until now, not a single person has tried to put up an authorized granny flat,” said Galvin.
The city corroborated that no one has taken advantage of the new rules.
Miami Beach had a similar recent history.
In 2019, the city commission heard a proposal about allowing backyard units to be leased out, and some single family homeowners were outraged at the idea.
“I find this to be an ill-conceived piece of legislation,” said Miami Beach resident Frank Shapiro at a commission meeting. “You’re also inviting every cash-strapped homeowner who needs to close that gap to go ahead and enter being a landlord. That’s really a recipe for disaster.”
Public comments at the meeting harped on how the change could change the character of single-family neighborhoods, and not for the better. Speakers warned that drug dealers and hard partiers would take over calm areas, even though the proposal stipulated that the homeowner would also have to live on the property.
The pushback was so firm that the entire proposal was thrown into question.
Commissioner Ricky Arriola, who sponsored the item after he said he was approached by an elderly resident, pitched it as a way to help create affordable housing for nurses and restaurant workers in the city in a way that would not cost taxpayers money. He grew frustrated at the pushback and the proposed changes to the item that were meant to cater to the concerned residents.
“We can either butcher this so that it’s so hard for a homeowner to do it that they don’t avail themselves of this, or we just say we’re not gonna listen to all the noise. You’re always going to have people disagreeing,” Arriola told fellow commissioners in the meeting. “Either you want to do something about affordable housing or you don’t.”
In the end, the version that passed did not allow any new units to be built. Only existing backyard units could be legally rented out. Any participant would have to register with the city and receive an annual review of the property. And instead of being a citywide policy, the new rules only applied to the Mid Beach area.
Since the passage of that ordinance, not a single homeowner has applied to the city to make use of the opportunity, a city spokesperson told WLRN.
Florida wants to bring the granny flats back
The state of Florida has long pushed local governments to allow backyard units to be built.
A 2004 law encouraged cities and counties to allow for the development of backyard units as a way to provide affordable housing to low and moderate-income Floridians. Local governments that see affordable backyard units get built are credited with moving towards each area’s housing goals as part of their comprehensive plan, a central part of the state’s growth planning.
A 2019 report sponsored by the Florida Housing Finance Corporation, a state-created corporation that focuses on developing affordable housing, recommended that backyard units “should be permitted in all single-family zone districts” in large part as a way to increase the affordable housing supply.
“Traditional single-family zoning procedures no longer fit the needs of the newer generations of our communities as more young people are looking for smaller, affordable places to live with access to opportunity,” reads the report. “A regulatory atmosphere that increases the number of [accessory dwelling units] will bring a positive impact to Florida’s housing stock and to our communities.”
A proposal that will soon come up for discussion at the Miami-Dade County commission has brought the discussion to the forefront of regional planning.
The proposal, from commission chairman Jose “Pepe” Diaz, would require the county to keep a ten-year supply of single-family housing lots in perpetuity. At the current rate of expected population growth and housing demand, the county will run out of land for single-family housing zoned areas in 2024.
Also included in the proposal was a suggestion that the county authorize “broader use of accessory dwelling units or lot-splitting within single-family residential areas” to help maintain an adequate supply of housing.
A whopping 87 percent of residential land area in Miami-Dade County is dedicated to single-family housing
Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava came out strongly against much of the proposal, writing in a letter to Diaz that mandating a perpetual supply of single-family housing could drive costs up by restricting the amount of units developers can build on available land and lead to the “subsequent depletion of valuable agricultural and other non-urban land.”
She added that continuing to build single-family homes in the furthest outskirts of the county will only add to increasing problems of traffic congestion.
But on the topic of encouraging more use of accessory dwelling units and converting single-family areas into zones with multiple housing units on one plot, the mayor appeared supportive.
“We can work to preserve a wide range of housing stock by redefining what we consider a single-family neighborhood,” wrote the mayor. “We are a growing community with limited buildable land, and our housing types must be adjusted to that changing reality.”
A brief discussion about Diaz’s proposal recently took place on a subcommittee of the commission, and the chairman agreed to work on it a bit more before bringing it for a vote. That could happen as soon as April, he said.
THE INFORMAL HOUSING ECONOMY
Pushback about these kinds of changes at the local level has become such an issue in some parts of the country that state governments have taken over zoning regulations in order to address regulatory housing issues. New Hampshire, California, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont have all passed laws that supersede local not-in-my-backyard regulations for most granny flats in their states, according to the AARP.
The reality is that if the creation of granny flats and efficiencies are not legalized and brought over the table, many people are converting their properties into illegal units that exist on the informal housing market, said the AARP’s Cantwell. Millions of these illegal units exist across the country, especially in areas that have high housing costs.
“It speaks to the fact that there really is a need for these types of options, period. That people are trying to think outside the box,” said Cantwell.
Those informal housing units run the risk of being discovered by code inspectors and demolished, and property owners could be found liable for municipal fines. Often safety concerns due to a lack of permitting are behind the crackdowns. At the same time, permitting is not an option since the units are not allowed to be built in the first place.
Another issue is that tenants who rent informal apartments often lack legal protections under state or local laws, since they don’t have recognized lease agreements.
An unknown amount of informal housing already pervades Miami-Dade County, and it’s broadly known that local governments reluctantly accept it to some degree as part of the housing market.
In a recent press conference about affordable housing, Hialeah Mayor Steve Bovo referred to illegally constructed efficiencies as a “submarket” that “adjusts itself” to real housing needs.
The mayor argued that the city should allow for denser housing in some areas, but said the illegal units were not helping.
“It used to be that Hialeah was a poster child [for illegal efficiencies] — well, it’s all over Miami-Dade, this issue of efficiencies,” said Bovo. “We’re also seeing another reaction that has us greatly concerned, which is RVs and campers being parked at people’s homes and being rented out. That is not a model for development, it’s not a model to address the housing issues in our community.”
'We need to relax a bit'
The solution to the problem is very simple for Martha Bueno, a libertarian running for a seat on the Miami-Dade commission: Local governments need to support residents by getting out of the way.
The more property restrictions there are, the less potential housing gets built. The less housing that gets built in a fast-growing region, the higher the cost for existing housing. It’s basic supply and demand economics.
But in order for this to become a reality, it would require single-family neighborhoods and local governments in South Florida to stop seeing themselves as disconnected islands of suburbia and more as part of the fast-growing, urbanizing metropolitan area that they are.
A whopping 87 percent of residential land area in Miami-Dade County is dedicated to single-family housing, according to the county government.
“Somebody 35, 40, 50 years ago decided this is how we’re going to plan Miami. So now we have this huge county with almost 3 million people, and we’re at a crunch. We don’t have enough land,” said Bueno. “Do we go into the Everglades and kill our wildlife or do we allow people to make the best use of their land by possibly converting it into these multi-use things?”
Bueno lives on an acre of land in South Dade, and she said she was shocked when she learned she could not build an extra unit on her land to help house a family friend.
“So what’s my other option? I either don’t get it or I circumvent it by having an illegal thing,” she said. “They leave us with very few options, so I think we need to relax a bit.”