How to solve Florida's large-scale affordable housing crisis
In Miami, Frey envisioned a pair of multi-story, walk-up buildings, each of four apartments with a combined footprint that covers about 60% 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 homeownership 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. Similar activism and change is happening elsewhere in Florida (“Using Zoning and Density,” below). 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% 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-bedroom 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.