More from the series
Priced out of paradise: Workforce solutions
Over the past decade, South Florida’s housing costs have far outstripped wages. Those who work here — teachers, firefighters, wait staff, architects, nurses, custodial workers, police officers, clerks — are struggling to get by. Part II of this series explores how local government entities are partnering with for-profit developers and nonprofit agencies. Our interactive tool helps renters and buyers match their budgets to affordable neighborhoods. Future stories will explore more solutions to South Florida’s housing crisis.
Clifford Johnson was born and raised in Miami. He grew up in Liberty City and graduated from Miami Beach Senior High in 1976.
For the past 18 years, he has been employed by Miami-Dade County, first on custodial duty, then working his way up through environmental services and other departments.
He currently works for the county at Miami International Airport, painting the giant warehouses and hangars that house commercial airliners. He works from 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
But despite his long service, Johnson would not be able to afford to live in Miami-Dade County without the help of affordable housing. He earns $44,000 per year — less than the county’s area median income of $50,000.
Johnson has been able to make things work, thanks to an affordable housing complex in Brownsville. His one-bedroom apartment costs $850 per month.
But his plight is increasingly common in Miami-Dade, where the cost of housing has far outstripped wages. In the decade spanning 2007 to 2017, Miami-Dade’s median wage rose only 14 percent — to $17.20 — while home values shot up 66 percent.
Though the skyline has often looked like a forest of construction cranes, most of the new condos and homes have been pitched to buyers with deep pockets — most of them foreign or out-of-towners. Those who work here — teachers, firefighters, wait staff, architects, nurses, custodial workers, police officers, clerks — struggle to get by.
The numbers tell the story. According to Harvard’s 2019 State of the Nation’s Housing report, the stock of low-rent units priced under $800 in South Florida’s tri-county region shrank 39 percent between 2011 and 2017, while the number of low-income renters dipped only 2 percent.
And only one of five new single-family homes built during this period was priced under $200,000. Miami now ranks first when it comes to the percentage of renters paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent.
It doesn’t take an economics degree to figure out the impact: higher prices for everyone.
Even in a modest neighborhood like North Miami, market-rate rents for a two-bedroom apartment run about $1,900 per month — meaning a family would need to earn about $70,000 per year for the rent to fit under 30 percent of the budget. That’s well above the Miami-Dade median of $50,000.
“The crisis has spread up the income scale over the last five years, so it’s no longer just extremely low-income households,” said Annie Lord, executive director of Miami Homes For All, a non-profit housing advocacy group. “Now you have middle-class and even higher-income people in Miami-Dade who are also [spending more than a third of their monthly income on housing].“
The result, says Florida International University’s Metropolitan Center: a shortage of 134,295 homes, rented or owned, to meet the demand by Miami-Dade residents earning less than $40,000 — 80 percent of the county’s median household income of $49,930.
“A lot of people believe affordable housing means you have a free ride and you don’t have to work and the government and taxpayers are taking care of everything, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Kenneth Naylor, chief operating officer of Atlantic | Pacific Communities, a national development firm that owns and operates more than 40,000 affordable, workforce and market-rate units around the U.S., including Florida.
“People who live in affordable housing may be on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, but they’re pulling themselves up to the next rung,” Naylor said. “A healthy economy depends on giving people a real shot at upward mobility. An unhealthy economy where every dollar gets sopped up in rent doesn’t allow people to make any progress.”
Increasingly, city governments and county agencies are pairing up with universities, advocacy groups and developers to identify vacant public land, reshape zoning codes, design new tax incentives and create new funding streams.
For example, the University of Miami’s Office of Civic and Community Engagement recently launched a real-time mapping tool that revealed 500 million square feet of vacant or underused land around Miami-Dade County that is either publicly or institutionally owned.
The tool allows developers and community advocates to identify potential land assemblages for affordable housing. City and county planners have scheduled demonstrations with UM analysts to learn how to best use the tool.
In the City of Miami, the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency has partnered with a private developer, Avra Jain, to refurbish existing low-income housing buildings. Miami-Dade County is collaborating with the school board and the library system to create housing as part of existing projects.
AFFORDABLE VS. PUBLIC
For years, the core of the government response has been public-private partnerships that marry the expertise of private developers with tax incentives that make such projects an attractive business proposition.
Although they’re often lumped together, affordable housing is entirely different from public housing. Public housing is financed and overseen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Residents who live there must meet strict eligibility requirements that favor extremely low-income households, which means they earn 30 percent or less of a county’s median income. In Miami-Dade, that means less than $15,000.
Affordable housing is designed for households earning between 60 and 120 percent of the area median income — in Miami-Dade, between $30,000 and $60,000.
But because the guidelines are so complex, only specialist companies focus exclusively on affordable housing.
“Whenever there’s a suitable parcel of land available, people want to build high-end housing on it,” said Stephanie Berman-Eisenberg, president and CEO of Carrfour Supportive Housing, a non-profit organization established in 1993 by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce to develop housing and support for the homeless in Miami-Dade. Carrfour currently oversees an inventory of 2,000 units around the county, with 250 more on the way across South Florida.
“It’s very hard to make an affordable housing development work — make it truly affordable and still make it profitable,” she said.
But although it remains a small industry, experts say affordable housing remains popular because there is less competition.
“It’s a small niche and everyone stays in their lane, because they all go about it differently,” said Kevin Morris, senior director of affordable housing services at Colliers International. “It’s also one of the rare industries that gets support from both Democrats and Republicans, because of its social importance and because of the tax credits.”
A typical affordable housing development begins with the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC). Created in 1986, the program provides tax credits to developers who build rental properties with rents at lower-than-market rates. Developers then sell the tax credits to financial institutions such as banks or hedge funds to amass the initial capital for the proposed project.
Each year, the Internal Revenue Service allocates LIHTCs to state housing agencies on a per capita basis, so larger states get more than smaller ones. (The average amount of dollar values allocated from 2018-2022 is projected to be $9.9 billion each year).