'Don't Throw The Baby Out With The Bathwater': Miami City Commissioner On Affordable Housing Bill

May 2, 2019

Miami residents face the highest housing cost burden of any large metro area in the country. Last year the city of Miami passed an inclusionary zoning measure for the Omni housing development downtown. It would require a portion of the apartments in those developments to be designated affordable. However, the new measure could be facing opposition from lawmakers in Tallahassee.

A new bill sponsored by Rep. Jason Fischer, a Jacksonville Republican, would prevent cities from requiring  "inclusionary zoning" policies for new housing development. He told WJCT radio in Jacksonville, “I think that rent and price controls lead to higher prices, so it leads to more unaffordable housing." There are two different versions of the bill in the House and Senate as the legislative session is coming to a close. 

Miami City Commissioner Ken Russell, representing District 2, spearheaded the Omni affordable housing development project. He's been following the legislation in Tallahassee closely and spoke with Sundial guest host Caitie Switalski. 

WLRN: Can you explain a little bit what the Omni housing development that you spearheaded last year is and how it's going to work?

Russell: So the city has purview to make changes to our zoning code. And the elected officials in the city, the commissioners, are able to do that. What's never been done before in the history of Miami or the state is mandatory inclusionary affordability. We give significant entitlements to development and in exchange they give a certain portion of workforce or affordable housing within that development. And it's a partnership. The state's concern is, they feel there's a mandate coming down and there have been bad examples of inclusionary zoning around the country. But I studied this legislation throughout different examples and we found what works and what doesn't. And what we've done here in Miami is what's working. So we're hoping that the good intentions of Tallahassee don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. 

How do you respond to the argument that establishing a cost ceiling for housing development will ultimately reduce incentives for development and available housing units? 

If done in a vacuum, that could be a negative consequence. If you just try to get the world's development to solve your housing crisis, it's not going to happen If you leave it to them voluntarily, they're not going to do it. You've got your traditional housing developers that play in that game and they know how to get the federal incentives that are out there. We're trying to think outside the box and use the municipal tools to bring otherwise market rate developers into this world of affordability. Now they may do it kicking and screaming at first, but once they recognize the incentive package we're putting together and that the end product actually organically works for them. The renters can get financing for the apartments, people are renting them out and that's what's happening in this area where they do inclusionary zoning. It's a complete success and we've got new developers that are getting involved and they're having success. 

Have you been able to have these conversations about your concerns with the bill with the bill's sponsor, Jacksonville Republican Jason Fisher? Have you been able to express these  concerns?

So I've been reaching out to allies in Tallahassee. This isn't just an argument about pre-emption. There are many issues where this city and cities all throughout the state have an issue where we don't feel that the state should be weighing in on some of the local rules. And some of those we may never have success on, but we're seeing a lot of those when it comes to plastic bags and we are pre-empted from changing the minimum wage. There's a lot of things like that. In this particular case, it's actually within our purview to change the zoning of the city. If we do it in a well thought out way, it can be very positive. And so their fear is of the negative consequence of doing it wrong.

But what we'd like to show them is there's already a positive example of this happening, so let's hit the brakes and let's work on this together for next session. Because if there is, if there are types of mandates that you don't want to see that make sense I'd even support that. But to say, "Let's throw all mandates out the door," if left to its own devices completely voluntarily, the market rate world will displace this community completely.