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How to solve Florida’s affordable housing crisis

Enabling more small-scale development could help solve Florida’s large-scale challenge.

This article was originally published in the October issue of Florida Trend magazine.

Andrew Frey, attorney, urbanist and developer, began with the idea of building a brownstone in Miami. It would be neither brown nor stone but would have three stories with a stoop, the kind of row house that makes for the iconic, livable neighborhoods found in his former home of Boston and in New York, San Juan and cities across Europe. A good “building topology,” he says in wonky fashion.

He wondered why no one had filled vacant lots in Little Havana and other Miami neighborhoods with buildings like it — or like the small Med Revival or Art Deco apartment buildings from the 1920s and 1930s found throughout Miami Beach. Frey ran through the list of necessaries, such as demand, money, design professionals, engineers, contractors. Miami had them all. “I’m not that smart. I can’t be the only person who had this idea. Why aren’t other people building brownstones?” Frey says. “The only thing left was zoning.”

From that starting point nearly a decade ago, Frey went on a quest to build his brownstones — with mixed results — and took a deep dive into how Miami and Florida can address its shortage of affordable housing. Others around Florida are taking a similar path. The names and approaches vary — some go under the name YIMBY (“Yes in My Backyard”) and others Market Urbanism — but they share a view that liberalized urban planning and unshackled private developers can create market-rate housing to supply the housing need.

Related: Using zoning to promote affordable housing in St. Petersburg

Affordable housing means different things — market rate vs. subsidized, for example — to different people. At a housing forum in February, Suzanne Cabrera, CEO of the Housing Leadership Council of Palm Beach County, remarked that a manufacturer paying starting engineers $85,000 a year had trouble recruiting local workers because housing costs are so high. “If you cannot recruit a rocket scientist in your county, you got a huge problem,” she said.

That said, affordable housing generally means houses or apartments for low-income workers — housekeepers, retail clerks, health aides and others. Orange County defines the affordable market as households making from 30 percent of area median income — or $26,000 — up to 120 percent of area median income ($83,000).

“Everything comes back to housing,” says Stephanie Berman-Eisenberg, CEO of Carrfour Supportive Housing, a Miami non-profit that provides housing for the formerly homeless and oth-rs at the bottom-most rung. “It seems like if we could figure out how to keep people in housing, a lot of our other community problems would be solved.”

Neither Florida nor the nation has figured it out. More than 40 federal, state and private funding sources for affordable housing target homeowners, renters and developers in Florida, according to the Florida Housing Coalition’s affordable housing resource guide. Florida also is home to 18 existing and proposed community land trusts, ranging from Franklin County in the Panhandle to Key West, aimed at making homes affordable. Additionally, some local governments provide construction loans for affordable housing, donate surplus government land and have other programs.

Nonetheless, Florida has 795,605 low-income, “cost-burdened” renter households — households with wage earners making less than 60 percent of an area’s median income and paying 40 percent or more of that income in rent and utilities, according to the most recent annual report by the University of Florida’s Shimberg Center for Housing Studies.

Miami-Dade leads the state with 134,723 low-income, cost-burdened renter households. “The numbers are pretty staggering,” says Harold “Trey” Price, executive director of the Florida Housing Finance Corp

.Founded by the state 40 years ago, Florida Housing Finance is the conduit for the state’s afford-able housing funds, notably tax money raised under the 1992 Sadowski Act for housing. Each year, developers and housing advocates lobby legislators to commit the funds to their intended use — housing — though lawmakers typically divert at least some of the funds to other uses. Last year, Florida Housing Finance helped 17,192 households with homeownership — a good year — and added 11,469 rental units to the state’s affordable housing inventory, the most in at least five years.

This year, for the first time in 13 years, the Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis delighted advocates by committing all of the Sadowski money to housing. But even fully committed, Sadowski money can’t meet the need.

“There will never be enough government money to go into the problem at scale and solve the problem,” says Florida State urban economics professor Samuel Staley. “There’s no question in my mind this has to be a private-sector solution.

”The difficulty is that the profit margins in affordable housing are “very, very thin,” Staley says, and disappear under the cost of regulation and impact fees.

That’s what Frey found in Miami. Frey studied philosophy at Boston College and worked as an urban planner for the Cambridge Housing Authority in Massachusetts before attending law school at the University of Michigan. He came to Florida in 2004 as a zoning lawyer, then joined a Coral Gables-based apartment developer and now is a senior development manager for national urban rental housing developer Crescent Heights and COO for Galbut Family Office. He also has his own small property development company, Tecela. He’s married to filmmaker Ali Codina, daughter of Armando Codina, a real estate legend in Miami, and is vice chair for public policy for the Southeast Florida/Caribbean region of the Urban Land Institute, a global group devoted to responsible land use and making vibrant communities.

In Miami, Frey envisioned a pair of multi-story, walk-up buildings, each of four apartments with a combined footprint that covers about 60 percent of a typical, 5,000-sq.-ft. lot zoned for small-scale apartment buildings. Such a building would fit the character of near-in Miami neighborhoods like Little Havana.

The city’s requirements for parking, however, checkmated Frey’s vision of his eight-unit project. The required number of spaces per dwelling unit, plus the required guest spaces and driveway, would take about 5,100 square feet of asphalt — on a 5,000-sq.-ft. lot.

Over several years, Frey made the rounds of Miami neighborhoods, business and civic associations to argue for doing away with the required parking requirements. He asked for letters of support and took them to then city commissioner and current Mayor Francis Suarez, who championed them. In a 2015 package of zoning changes related to transit, the city relaxed the parking requirement for buildings up to 10,000 square feet near bus and train corridors.

“Simply put, with the reduced (parking) threshold, more developable lots become available, thus making home-ownership more affordable to all Miamians,” says Suarez.

As a result of that package of zoning changes, and subsequent zoning interpretations and increases in county and city bus frequencies, pretty much all of the city that’s not zoned for single-family homes and duplexes now lies in such a transit corridor, Frey says.

Frey finished the first pair of brownstones -- a total of eight units with studios and one bedrooms and two-bedroom units on the other two floors -- in 2017. He finished a matching pair in 2019. [Courtesy of Nick Garcia]
Frey finished the first pair of brownstones -- a total of eight units with studios and one bedrooms and two-bedroom units on the other two floors -- in 2017. He finished a matching pair in 2019. [Courtesy of Nick Garcia] [ NICK GARCIA | Nick Garcia ]

Similar activism and change is happening elsewhere in Florida. In Orlando, in a move to encourage the private sector, the city in 2017 made it easier for property owners to add garage or mother-in-law apartments, called “accessory dwelling units.” Through the first half of this year, Orlando saw 43 such units built, just one short of the total for all of 2017 under the old rules.

Meanwhile, Orange County “has been working to address the ever-present and growing shortage of affordable and attainable housing in the county,” says Alberto Vargas, manager of Orange County’s Planning Division, by working to have 30,300 more affordable and workforce housing units built by 2030. It’s committed $160 million over 10 years to a local housing trust fund and is talking with Orlando and Seminole and Osceola counties about studying a linkage fee, essentially a tax on new non-residential construction to fund affordable housing.

In addition to the government interventions, Orange County also expects to see more affordable/attainable housing product types by reducing regulatory barriers. It, too, relaxed accessory dwelling unit rules and through July saw 130 units built, compared to 119 in all of 2019. Orange is giving expedited review to new housing developments of all types near public transportation, employment centers, community resources and services. It’s also studying reducing or removing minimum square footage requirements for houses and apartments and allowing more people per household.

Such rethinking of planning and the government approval process is in order, says Staley, the FSU professor. Subsidies and government-built projects aren’t keeping up with need, while regulation is slowing supply. In a study with the Reason Foundation, he found that 16 percent of housing price inflation in 56 of Florida’s 67 counties could be attributed to planning under the state’s growth management law. The more hoops builders and developers have to jump through, the higher the costs to navigate and the higher the uncertainty, he says. That makes projects less economically feasible, which squeezes affordable housing out. “That’s what I think we’re seeing,” Staley says.

Staley says adding density in an area that’s already urban should be smoother and more predictable for developers and should be done by administrative approval rather than public hearings. “We have to create an environment where lots of units can be built,” he says.

In Miami, Frey solved the parking challenge but still faced a density problem. Ideally, he wanted to build his three-story, eight-unit building on land zoned T4 — the classification for small, three-floor buildings. T4 land generally is cheaper than land zoned for more units. But eight apartments in that zoning classification worked out to 72 units per acre, too dense by city law. He could build no more than four units. “It just doesn’t work,” he says.

By Frey’s calculation, if Miami doubled density for the city’s T4-zoned land to 72 units per acre, developers could add 36,000 more housing units in Miami. Going up to 108 units per acre — which works out to a 12-unit building on a 5,000-sq.-ft. lot — would produce 72,000 units and still keep everything at three stories and similar to existing buildings in older Miami neighborhoods, Frey says.

In his case, he says he had to pay for a lot zoned for T6 — which allows 150 units per acre — to get his eight units. He paid $200,000 for a lot in Little Havana, three blocks from the Miami River and a half-dozen from downtown. He later paid another $325,000 for an adjacent, rundown duplex and razed it. The two sites are in a neighborhood with a school-bus parking lot, old homes with barred windows, an apartment building on the corner and, across the main road, a mom-and-pop store playing Latin music and advertising cold beer. The area has plenty of vacant lots. On one down the street, his builders could see down-and-out people exchanging sexual favors for drugs.

Frey, late on a weekday afternoon, shows off his finished development — pairs of contemporary row houses, with stoops, built on the two lots. The upper floors have balconies. Ground floor apartments have a small back yard. The vibe is urban with concrete and stucco exteriors, a mix of textures, stencil art, Cuban tile back splashes, 13-foot ceilings. He finished the first pair — totaling eight units with studios and one bedrooms on the top floor and two-bed-room units on the other two floors — in 2017. A matching pair with another eight apartments were finished in 2019.

Frey signed a master lease with a vacation rental company to lease them out. He says he thought it would be easier.

It raises the question: What guarantee is there that developers — once liberated from mandates — will add affordable housing rather than pricier units or vacation rentals? The short answer: None.

Staley, the FSU professor, says if there’s demand, it means the supply hasn’t been provided before. He also refers to what economists call “filtering” — as people move up market, they leave behind dwellings that less well-off people can afford.

In any case, the vacation company abandoned Frey in the pandemic. No rent came in April or May. He hired a leasing broker to rent units by conventional 12-month terms and by early August was fully leased. Rents are mid-market for that part of Miami, averaging $1,850 per month — or in the low $2-per-square-foot range.

Misha Gurevich developed a three-story co-living space in Miami. Rents top out at $1,075. [Courtesy of Nick Garcia]
Misha Gurevich developed a three-story co-living space in Miami. Rents top out at $1,075. [Courtesy of Nick Garcia] [ NICK GARCIA | Nick Garcia ]

On a lot next door to his row houses an-other small developer is building a small-scale, multi-family building. Around the corner, a third developer, Misha Gurevich, this summer began leasing 32 bedrooms in a three-story, 12-unit co-living building he and his family’s Propolis firm constructed on a 5,000-sq.-ft. lot. He says relaxing of parking requirements made it possible. Rents per bedroom range from $875 to $1,075 a month. Each bedroom has its own bathroom, but unit tenants share a kitchen and living room.

“It’s not for everyone,” he says. “The idea was always to produce a product that was new, nice and affordable.” Early tenants have been young professionals relocating to Florida. Gurevich has seven more sites in the pipeline, all small buildings.

Near Frey's rowhouses in Miami, Misha Gurevich developed a three-story, 12-unit co-living building with 32 bedrooms. [Courtesy of Nick Garcia]
Near Frey's rowhouses in Miami, Misha Gurevich developed a three-story, 12-unit co-living building with 32 bedrooms. [Courtesy of Nick Garcia] [ Nick Garcia ]

Frey hopes the next 10 years will see contractors and small developers taking vacant lots and old rentals “slum-lorded to death” and in their place constructing the supply to meet Miami’s need for housing

“It’s not scarce because developers corner the market on housing like OPEC and are only letting a few barrels out at a time,” Frey says. “Housing prices are high because of scarcity, and scarcity is caused by the government.”

AFFORDABILITY SNAPSHOT

Florida’s Largest Counties

........................................Renter.....................Low-Income.............Low-Income

County.........................Households...............Cost-Burdened........% of State Total

Broward.........................260,777..........................80,940......................10.2%

Duval..............................151,180..........................41,741.......................5.3

Hillsborough...................223,410..........................60,755.......................7.6

Miami-Dade....................451,763.........................134,723.....................16.9

Orange.............................223,433..........................67,432........................8.5

Palm Beach......................176,970..........................56,727.......................7.1

Pinellas.............................147,098..........................40,942.......................5.2

Total..............................1,634,631........................483,260......................60.7

Note: Low income is less than or equal to 60 percent of area median income.

Cost-burdened is paying more than 40 percent of income on rent and utilities.

Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay has 120,848 low-income households (making 60 percent of area median income or less) who pay more than 40 percent of their income on rent and utilities.

Tampa Bay added 115,000 rental units from 2000 to 2017 — only 955 of them had rented for $1,000 or less. Only 44 percent of all rental units in Tampa Bay rent for $1,000 or less, down from 63 percent in 2000.

Renters under 55 increased by 74,506 households. Most growth in renting and home ownership came from those 55 and older. Under-55 homeowners fell by 40,242.

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