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Affordable housing at the cost of the Agricultural Reserve, and a plan to rehome the homeless on Virginia Key

Virginia Key sunrise.jpg
Guy Forchion

Palm Beach County approved plans to build affordable housing in the county's Agriculture Reserve, but the plan has environmentalists sounding alarms. In Miami-Dade County, a plan to build mini-homes for the homeless on Virginia Key has brought out many voices of dissent.

On July 28, the Palm Beach County Commission voted 5-1 to approve plans for an affordable housing complex in the Agricultural Reserve. The project includes 357-market rate apartments and 119 workforce housing units — which would be income restricted.

According to the Palm Beach County website, The Agricultural Reserve was established “to preserve unique farmland and wetlands in order to enhance agricultural activity, environmental and water resources, and open space, by limiting uses to agriculture, conservation, low-density residential development, and non-residential uses which serve the needs of farmworkers and residents of the Ag Reserve Tier.”

Palm Beach County Vice Mayor Gregg Weiss said there is a need for affordable housing in Palm Beach County. He said that reports show the county is short about 100,000 affordable housing units.

“As the board looked at the area, there's 20,000 acres out in the Ag Reserve,” vice mayor Weiss said. “ It's the only part of our community that had zero workforce housing requirement and also lacks any multi-family unit development.”

Heidi Mehaffey is an attorney with Sierra Club and 1000 Friends of Florida. She said the concern they have with the approved plan is that it seeks to build housing density similar to suburban and urban areas in a location designated for low-density development.

“This particular piece of property is a little bit less than 40 acres, and the approval is for 8 units per acre when under the current land development regulation, they would only be allowed to develop 7 homes on that property,” she said.

The affordable housing crisis has affected all of South Florida, so further housing development is needed. However, Giving the thumbs up to the proposal brings up pressing questions that are facing South Florida as a region – especially as the cost of housing has skyrocketed – how far West should we build? The region has been losing farmland to development and environmentalists have been sounding the alarm about what it means for the future.

Weiss said they carefully analyzed the area to set aside 60% of the reserve for preservation purposes, giving the county 40% of the land to be used. He also explained that part of the original plans for the reserve included 14,00 residential units, and only 6,00 have been built today.

He hopes to see some of that land utilized for more housing.

“The goals of the Ag Reserve are being accomplished, but yet we’re making changes … And I think our board has been very careful and considerate on how we make these changes,” he said.

City of Miami plans to rehome homeless on Virginia Key. 

The city of Miami commission voted 3-2 last Thursday to move forward with a pilot project that could move residents experiencing homelessness to an encampment on the northern tip of Virginia Key.

The proposed plan aims to help people who experience chronic homelessness, William Poro, Director for the Department of Human Services for the City of Miami.

WLRN’s intern and reporter Ali Bianco said there originally wasn’t supposed to be a vote at the meeting, just a discussion item.

“But by the end of the discussion, commissioners had taken a vote essentially on whether or not to pilot the program on the northern tip of Virginia Key,” she said.

This location is next to the sewage water treatment plant and some biking trails. The vote originally failed but reversed after a few hours. At the moment, the commission will also look at other locations proposed by the city manager besides Virginia Key. Bianco said they might also look at locations outside of the city of Miami.

There are currently no residents living on Virginia Key – but it is the home of the historic Black beach and recreation activities for cyclists. And the plan has been met with nearly across-the-board opposition.

David Peery, founder of the Miami Coalition to Advance Racial Equity and a chair of the Camillus Health Concern Consumer Advisory Board, said this whole idea is misguided and will only add further trauma and damage to the unhoused population.

“We’re not going to solve homelessness in Miami or any other place for that matter by banishing the homeless or deporting them away from the places where they live,” he said. “This is just going to be an incredible waste of time … that can go towards truly solving homelessness in Miami.”

Other citizens hold the same opinion of Peery. Callers on the South Florida Roundup said moving a vulnerable population away to an area that is susceptible to environmental damage is not beneficial. They also said it’s harder to help re-introduce them to society if they are so far removed.

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Natu Tweh is producer of The Florida Roundup and The South Florida Roundup at WLRN.