Teachers can't afford Miami rents. The county has a plan: Let them live at school.

Phillis Wheatley Elementary School could get a facelift -- and a new apartment complex next door -- as part of a plan to bring affordable housing to campus for Miami-Dade's teachers. [C.M. GUERRERO | Miami Herald]
Phillis Wheatley Elementary School could get a facelift -- and a new apartment complex next door -- as part of a plan to bring affordable housing to campus for Miami-Dade's teachers. [C.M. GUERRERO | Miami Herald]
Published Mar. 27, 2018

Amid a wide gap between modest teacher salaries and Miami's high housing prices, the county has a new plan: build apartments on school property and let faculty live there.

A preliminary proposal includes constructing a new mid-rise middle school in the luxe Brickell area for Southside Elementary, with a floor devoted to residential units, and several more reserved for parking and the classrooms on top. If that goes well, Miami-Dade wants a full-fledged housing complex next to Phillis Wheatley Elementary, with as many as 300 apartments going up on the campus just north of downtown.

"It's an exciting idea," said Michael Liu, Miami-Dade's housing director. "Land is at a premium in Miami-Dade County. It's difficult to come by, especially in the urban core."

Though preliminary, the joint effort by Miami-Dade's school system and housing department has momentum.

Miami-Dade is already in talks with Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency that oversees some of the county's affordable-housing projects. JPMorgan Chase gave a $215,000 grant to the nonprofit Miami Homes For All to help develop the Wheatley plan, according to a March 22 company release.

Miami's Omni Community Redevelopment Area — a downtown tax district with a budget of more than $50 million a year — in January voted to back a complex development agreement that would send dollars to the Wheatley project.

County teachers would get priority for the apartments, but the school system doesn't plan to reserve units for faculty at the schools involved. Still, the apartments would likely be most in demand for those teachers, given the non-existent commute.

"You basically just walk around the corner, and you're there," said Jaime Torrens, the school system's chief facilities officer.

He said that while the residential and educational facilities could share some recreational facilities after hours — such as playing fields or community rooms — the buildings would be designed so that residents and the school populations couldn't mix during the school day. At the new Southside building, students and residents would enter in different ground-floor lobbies and use different elevators. At Phillis Wheatley, the school would be in one building and the apartments in another.

The concept would add Miami to a scattering of cities across the country where schools are using their own real estate to provide more affordable housing to their workforces. As the largest employer in Miami-Dade, the school system has long cited housing prices as a top recruiting hurdle.

When Apartment List last year matched teacher salaries with rents in 50 of the country's largest real estate markets, Miami ranked 47th; only New York, Seattle and San Francisco had larger gaps. With a first-year teacher earning about $42,000 and raises coming slowly, Apartment List found even established teachers could expect to spend as much as two-thirds of their incomes on a two-bedroom apartment in Miami.

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"When you look at teacher salaries, it's just impossible for them to get into the housing market," said Ned Murray, associate director of Florida International University's Metropolitan Center, which studies the gap between income and housing in Miami. Using school property to create housing for the school system's workforce "is a good idea, because land is such a difficult piece of the puzzle."

By helping create housing units for its employees, the school system would attempt to chip away at the gap. Miami-Dade's housing arm, an agency that is part of the county government headed by Mayor Carlos Gimenez, would steer federal, state and local funding and tax breaks to the projects. The school system would build the Southside complex, with funding for the housing component from Miami-Dade. A private developer would bid on the Wheatley complex, using the government incentives in exchange for keeping rents below the standard market rates.

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Details haven't been announced, but county programs typically use federal guidelines that match "workforce" rents to a family's income. The federal government establishes sliding scales of rents for working families living in projects using public tax breaks, low-interest loans and subsidies. For a family of four earning $45,000, the rent would be about $1,200 a month, according to agency statistics.

The proposal touches on some dicey territory. Miami-Dade's housing arm would be creating units reserved for a single workforce — the roughly 31,000 full-time employees of the school system. The plan is to give teachers priority on the units, then the rest of the employees, said Lisa Martinez, chief strategy officer for Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. Should there somehow still be availability, the units could be rented to people outside the school system.

Torrens said he expected demand would be so high that teachers would quickly scoop up the units. "There definitely will be more teachers who qualify for this program than there will be units available," he said.

The plan also would give affordable-housing developers an avenue into projects backed by the school system's property taxes. While school officials emphasized that school funds could only be used to improve schools — and not build residential projects — the math is bound to get confusing.

For its pilot project in the Brickell area, Miami-Dade's school system wants to expand the existing Southside Elementary school at 45 SW 13th St. by creating a new Southside building nearby for students between sixth and eighth grades. Rather than purchase land in an area just a few blocks from Brickell, the school system would use county land currently occupied by the Medvin Apartments complex, an abandoned and condemned public-housing project.

That would be demolished, and replaced by a school and residential complex funded separately by the two governments. The school system would pay for the classroom floors, and the county — by backing a private developer with federal tax credits and low-interest loans — would cover the rest.

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The Omni redevelopment agency would use its property-tax funds to pay for some infrastructure expenses on the Wheatley project, such as parking and sewage hook-ups, covering costs that a private developer would otherwise have to fund, said Martinez, the school administrator leading the housing effort. She said the contribution would bolster the redevelopment agency's mission to improve property values throughout the district. "Our missions are aligned," she said. "We are probably the largest property owner within the [agency's] boundaries."

The shuffle would lower the school system's tab for rehabbing Phillis Wheatley as part of the county's housing project next door: an apartment complex rising about seven stories. The residential building would stand on existing green space outside the school, another downside that has local officials wary of the community reaction.

Martinez said Phillis Wheatley has enough surplus land to spare for construction of a residential complex that will help bring construction dollars to the school itself. "We would not take away green space from the school itself," she said.

For Ana Valdes, the plan would mean a welcome lifestyle change and an ideal commute. The kindergarten teacher at Southside and her daughter live with Valdes' parents in Palmetto Bay. She blames a salary of about $43,000 a year and housing prices that are just too high for even modest apartments . "I always thought, 'Oh, what if I lived in Brickell?' " she said. "But even a one-bedroom costs you close to $2,000."