Confused about affordable housing in Miami? Here are a few basics

If you’ve ever had to search for a new place to live in Miami, you know this city is expensive for renters and buyers. Affordable housing is a big issue in town, but it can be just as tough figuring out how to even talk about the problem and its potential solutions.

Developers often use terms like “affordable” and “workforce” as if they’re interchangeable, but they aren’t truly the same thing. And understanding those differences, and other terms, are a big factor in the conversation around creating truly affordable housing.

To clear things up a bit, we set out to define some of these terms, and also take a look at who’s looking to solve some of Miami’s affordable housing issues.

Ok, so what does “affordable” mean?

Affordable is defined at both the national and state level as not spending more than 30 percent of your income on rent or your mortgage. If you’re paying more than that, especially for low-income residents, then you’re considered “cost burdened.”

Another common parameter is the assertion that a person should be able to comfortably afford to pay rent if they make 60 percent or less of an area’s median income. In Miami-Dade County that median income is $52,300, and that median income number is determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

So, based on those benchmarks, a person making $31,380 a year in Miami would need to find a place to rent for $785 or less per month in order for it to be considered “affordable.”

But finding a place for that amount is pretty tough. According to RentCafe, a two-bedroom apartment goes for about $1,821 a month.

And what about “workforce” housing?

State statute defines workforce housing as housing that’s affordable to people making at or less than 140 percent of an area’s median income — a number that also comes from HUD.

But organizations who work on this issue, like Miami Homes for All, say that the descriptor is sort of imperfect, because even folks making well below 140 percent of the median income (or about $73,220) are also part of the workforce.

And as MHFA’s policy director Evian White De Leon notes, these terms are all pretty relative for residents.

“What’s affordable to me might not be affordable to you,” White De Leon said. “And workforce housing is not just for the upper levels of [area median income] — it is for everyone.”

So when a development promises “workforce” housing it’s often not affordable for the average working person.

What are some potential solutions?

In 2018, Miami commissioners passed a significant change to the city’s zoning code to bring “inclusionary zoning” to a section of downtown Miami. The area borders Overtown and includes the nightclubs along Eleventh Street and the Omni area near the Adrienne Arsht Center.

The policy requires developers to set aside units in a new building for affordable and workforce housing. At least 14 percent would have to be workforce and a separate seven percent would be affordable housing. For condos, those numbers drop to 10 percent and five percent respectively.

In return, developers will be able to build taller and slightly larger buildings.

Commissioner Ken Russell, who sponsored the new law, said that now city staff is looking at other neighborhoods to see if they have similar zones that could accommodate for bigger development and, through this new zoning plan, generate more affordable housing.

“But we’re going to be very careful with it,” Russell said. “If there’s an area where there’s mostly single-family homes, for example, this sort of intensity and density wouldn’t be appropriate.”

What else is happening on this issue?

Annie Lord, MHFA’s director, says her organization is focused on identifying the publicly-owned land that’s already available across Miami-Dade County, so leaders can work quickly to create more affordable housing stock.

On the policy side, Lord’s hopeful that organizations like hers can propose impactful changes to local laws that will lead to the construction of rental units that people can truly afford.

“How do we coordinate the resources and the permitting processes between Miami-Dade County and other municipalities, especially municipalities devoting resources to affordable housing?,” Lord said. “We’re looking at what’s achievable.”

As leaders and non-profits tackle this issue, Lord said it’s important to remember how easily a lack of affordable housing can cause a person to run out of options.

“We’re potentially in a situation where we’ll see an explosion of our homeless population,” Lord said. “And I do think that, unless we do something major, we could be heading there.”

Stay tuned to our newsletter as we dig into the issue of affordable housing more in the next few weeks. Head here to subscribe if you haven’t already. Have any feedback to share? Let us know at [email protected]