Mandatory Affordable Housing: Coming Soon To Downtown Miami?

Nov 25, 2018

The city of Miami is close to passing a first-of-its-kind ordinance that will require developers to include affordable housing units in new buildings for a section of the city that is currently undergoing a boom.

The policy was passed unanimously by the City Commission during a first hearing earlier this month. There will be a second hearing on Dec. 13, when it appears likely to become law.

WLRN reporter Daniel Rivero recently talked with Commissioner Ken Russell, who spearheaded the policy shift. He represents the district that the legislation would impact, specifically the Omni area in downtown Miami, which surrounds the Adrienne Arsht Center and extends to the edge of Overtown.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity:

WLRN: Can you explain the ordinance that you have recently been pushing and exactly what it will do here?

KEN RUSSELL: Sure. It's a concept called "inclusionary zoning." It basically tells people where they can build single-family homes, where they can build towers, et cetera. There's one section of downtown that has not yet been developed — a lot of blighted empty lots, a lot of land banking going on. We believe it's suitable for a "zoning overlay" that allows additional density here but also requires affordability.

So some advocates are pointing to this policy as a big step forward for addressing the affordable housing issues, not just for the city of Miami, but as a region. Why do you think it's drawing that kind of attention?

For me, it's a very logical next step. We have a crisis of housing in Miami. The rents are too high, and the salaries are too low. It makes it very difficult for anyone within the workforce of Miami to live within the city limits, which compounds all of our other problems: Not just affordability, but transit, as people have to commute; quality of life, as they have to drop their kids on one half of town and then get to the other. The idea that someone should be able to live and work within a community or neighborhood that is central to the city is natural.
 

Credit Daniel Rivero / WLRN

And so, for me, it doesn't seem like such a big step. That being said, this has never been done before. Nobody has ever mandated affordability within zoning in the city of Miami.

We're doing this in cooperation with the world of development and allowing development to help solve our problems and not making it an us-versus-them situation. Because, in this area — which is suitable for density, and it's right on the Metro Mover — we can handle a few more floors within a building. So for them to receive that within this zoning change and yet provide affordability within that footprint, it still works out [to be] profitable for them. 

Can you give me the contours of the area that this would impact?

You've basically got an envelope right between Edgewater or the Arsht Center, just north of downtown, just north of the American Airlines Arena and 395. So you've got that section along the water that's all market-rate, luxury mostly apartments and some condos — just to the west of that. You can picture all the empty fields and parking lots that have not been developed for years. Now you see a few towers popping up in this area. But just to the further west of that, you've got the eastern edge of Overtown.

So you've got this no-man's-land in the middle, which is the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency, which I've been the chairman of since I've been in office. [I've spent] the last three years figuring out, what is the identity of this neighborhood? And how [do] we want to encourage it? We realized our mission in Miami is affordability, and this is the perfect place to introduce it.

What are the stakes here to try to get the housing situation right? Or, in other words, how will this actually play out as you imagine it in the medium- to long-run?

Well, my hope is that people recognize how groundbreaking it is but also realize how much it's just one small step and all the many things we have yet to do. This is going to affect both rental and ownership within the towers in this one transect zone. But what it will do, more importantly — it will take market-rate developers and introduce them to affordability in a way they had never probably planned on being involved.

They don't need to get federal subsidies — the traditional housing model. There's not a lot of bureaucracy and red tape. The market-rate units within their same building will help subsidize the affordable-rate units that are also in that same building. It's saying, we're all in this together, and that, when incentivized properly, the development world can help solve our problems.

I can imagine there are conversations that are ongoing between your office and other parts of the city and some of the companies that own tracts of land around here. Do they see all of this as a good thing?

You know, it's [not] something I'm dropping on anybody's head overnight. When I first came into office, we toured this entire district, and we invited every stakeholder who had a project here or a piece of land here and didn't know what they were going to do with it and were just land banking and talked to them: What are your dreams of this space? What are you trying to do here? You're trying to flip it? Bank it? Build something? Create something? What do you want to do?

And I wanted them to know where I was coming from. And the idea was, "Listen, we're all going to build this community together." You know, as a community redevelopment agency, we're going to help with green space. We're going to help with infrastructure. We're going out with historic preservation and the character of the neighborhood and the quality of life you all will be coming in to develop. We have to be partners here, and one of our priorities is affordability. So if you're developing in this area — get ready. And I think they are. I think they are just by the few projects [that] have dipped their toe in the pool. They see that the water's fine, the rest of them are going to come along now.

The city of Miami continuously shows up on these lists of the most unaffordable cities. What are the main roadblocks that exist here on that front?

Well, in a city, in a state where we don't have personal income tax, we rely on the development of the city to help bring in the dollars that run the city. But that doesn't mean that the voice of development or the intention of development gets to make all the decisions for us. The government — local government — and the residents have a responsibility to hold ourselves accountable and make sure that, as the city grows, we keep up with all the necessary infrastructure and planning that makes the neighborhood healthy. And that's what keeps it from being over-development. 

The reason Miami is now overdeveloped is because the infrastructure. The transit, the affordable housing has not kept up with the market-rate development that has been invited in.