November 11, 2019

Real Estate

Affordable housing in Florida: Déjà vu, all over again

As the economy has recovered, affordable housing is again an issue in many parts of Florida.

Amy Martinez | 10/26/2018

An Englewood man, Don Musilli, is trying to bring the technology to Florida. He got interested in 3-D-printed homes after creating the non-profit Englewood Innovation Center, which teaches basic 3-D printing skills to K-12 students in Sarasota County. Since 2012, he has helped place desktop 3-D printers in more than 50 schools, libraries and youth organizations in Southwest Florida.

Thirty years ago, Musilli founded a manufacturing company, Pure Air Systems, which he’s since sold, that introduced high-end air-filtration systems to the residential market. He has now formed 3D Build Systems to develop a 3-D printer that he says will be able to build the basic structure of a house in 24 to 36 hours. Each printer will cost more than $250,000, he says.

Using the printer, a home that today would cost about $250,000 could be printed for $150,000 or less, Musilli says. Cost savings come from both materials and labor — only a couple of workers are required to operate the printer that creates the shell of the house, with additional labor required to install the roof, windows and plumbing and electrical systems. Musilli believes the entire process ultimately can be automated.

Last year, Musilli hired a company in Ontario to create software to translate architectural plans into printing instructions that a robot can follow. He now owns the software and is working with another Canadian company, i-cubed, to develop a robot that can print cement up to a height of 13 feet and a width of 22 feet, for homes between 400 and 1,900 square feet. He says he hopes to have a robot ready for testing and fine-tuning by the end of this year. After that, he plans to lease or license it to local builders.

Obstacles remain, including a lack of industry standards — and whether the printed structure can meet state building regulations. "The first thing people ask us is, ‘What about the building codes?’ The reality is it’s just a different method of making a wall,” he says.

And even if 3-D printing lowers construction costs, it can do little about rising land costs and other things that go into the price of a new home, including impact fees, permits and utility hookups. Those "soft” costs account for about 40% of a home’s total construction costs, according to the non-profit Florida Housing Coalition.

Damon Allen, an adjunct professor in the School of Construction Management at the University of Florida, says it’s up to entrepreneurs like Musilli to invest the time and money required to take 3-D-printed homes mainstream.

"There aren’t a lot of machines available for purchase or use, and there aren’t a lot of companies out there using the technology,” he says. "But the potential of it is great.”

THE RESPONSES

Build It Smaller

Developers and municipalities are changing building codes to create affordable housing options, allowing for more density and smaller units.

Micro Apartments

Last November, Miami officials reduced the minimum allowed size for a micro unit to 275 square feet from 400 square feet. The city also is considering allowing micro-unit developers to forgo parking for projects close to public transit.

Miami-based Related Group is building two micro projects in the Wynwood neighborhood. Each unit will have a kitchen, bathroom and a bedroom. Studios will have bedrooms that double as a living room. Rents are expected to start at $1,400. To offset the smaller unit sizes, the buildings will have pools, fitness centers and dog-washing stations, among other amenities.

In April 2017, West Palm Beach’s downtown zoning board approved plans by developer Jeff Greene to build 348 apartments of about 450 square feet. Greene said he hoped to set rents at less than $1,000. He has since pulled his plans, telling the Palm Beach Post he had underestimated the cost of providing amenities.

Tiny Houses

With many hotel and restaurant workers priced out of the local housing market, the Keys have become a focal point of Florida’s affordability crisis. Last year, the situation was made worse by Hurricane Irma, which destroyed nearly 1,200 homes in Monroe County.

In August, Monroe officials called for proposals to build "tiny” houses on county-owned land for people displaced by Irma. Initially, the houses will be used to demonstrate inexpensive ways to build small, affordable replacement homes.

The county does not define tiny, but each house must be able to fit on a small lot. Proposals will be scored higher for "home-like” features, energy efficiency and environmental sustainability, says Assistant County Administrator Kevin Wilson. The county says it eventually might use the structures for its own employees. Monroe already uses county-owned dwelling units at Big Pine Key Park and Key Largo Community Park to house several employees.

"We want to show that you can bring an affordable solution for the construction of a house to existing properties on the Keys and make it sustainable and compliant with all the codes,” Wilson says.

In St. Petersburg, city officials approved plans for six houses of about 720 square feet at the site of a condemned apartment building due for demolition. Each house will have two bedrooms and a porch and initially be rented out. "A lot of people don’t need much to be comfortable and happy,” developer Pedro Medina told the Tampa Bay Times. "There is something efficient, sexy and modern about tiny houses.”

Container Housing

Crisis Housing Solutions (CHS), a Davie-based non-profit founded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, aims to build one of Florida’s first apartment complexes made of repurposed shipping containers. Last year, CHS received a $450,000 grant from JPMorgan Chase to create housing in Central Florida for working-class families. The non-profit estimates that shipping containers can reduce construction costs at least 15% compared with traditional concrete blocks.

CHS now is working to acquire land in Central Florida. Mike Smith, deputy director of CHS, envisions units ranging from 320 square feet for efficiencies to 1,280 square feet for a three-bedroom, two-bath apartment.

"We could do something on as little as a half-acre. It would have 16 to 20 units in a three-story garden-style complex,” Smith says. "The whole purpose of the program is to come up with a way to reduce construction costs and increase the supply of affordable rental housing.”

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