South Miami settles dispute over affordable housing

The South Miami City Commission has given the green light for a developer to build an affordable housing complex for seniors.

The commission approved a settlement with Beneficial Communities, a for-profit developer that plans to build Metro South Senior Apartments at 6101 Sunset Dr., across the street from City Hall, 6130 Sunset Dr.

The project is a 91-unit low-rent complex for people 55 and older.

The settlement agreement will end a dispute between the city and the developer that started last year, when commissioners voted against the project because they were unhappy with its height. The decision was taken with a 4-1 vote, with Mayor Philip Stoddard dissenting.

“The project has been controversial because the residents have been leery of tall buildings,” Stoddard told the Miami Herald. “There have been some affordable housing projects done around the county by other developers that have been a little harsh. They’ve built eight-story buildings that don’t really fit in the neighborhood and have a huge effect on the demographics and quality of life in the neighborhood.”

The vote against the project prompted Metro South to file a federal lawsuit, saying that the city was infringing on the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act. The ADA was established in 1990 and prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability; the FHA was established in 1968 and prohibits arbitrary restrictions on groups such as seniors.

Metro South also filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and a state lawsuit asking the court to rule on whether the South Miami City Commission had previously passed a zoning request by the developer. The city voted 4-1 to approve the zoning request. While the city said the vote needed to be unanimous for the zoning to pass, the developer argued that a 4-1 vote was sufficient.

After the city’s vote on the zoning, Metro South turned to the Florida Land Use Environmental Dispute Resolution Act for mediation. The act was adopted in 1995 to help property owners negotiate rules.

With the commission’s approval of the settlement, all claims the developer has against the city will be dismissed. But the release does not become permanent until Metro South obtains the necessary financing to construct the project. That includes tax credits from the Florida Housing Finance Corporation. Florida Housing is a program created by the state legislature to help residents obtain affordable housing.

Metro South’s attorney, Amy Brigham Boulris, of the Gunster law firm, said the developer has already secured the tax credits.

“The general release becomes active when you are able to put Humpty Dumpty back together, so Metro South would be back to where it was the day before the denial,” said Boulris.

The developer is under a contract to buy the property from 6101 Sunset LLC and expects to close on the purchase by spring of 2014, she said.

At a meeting in mid-September, the City Commission unanimously approved the settlement as well as the project’s site plan, with Commissioner Valerie Newman voting with “an uncomfortable” yes.

“I felt that pretty much our backs were against the wall. We had a developer with very big pockets,” Newman told the Miami Herald. “I believe that the parking issue was a problem. It still is a problem. I did get a little bit of a win in that originally they were going to build an eight-story box.”

The parking and height of the building were at the heart of the dispute. When the commission expressed concern with the height of the building, the developer offered to lower the height and decrease the number of parking spots to one for each unit. The city said that is not enough and the developer argued, with the help of independent studies, that the 1:1 parking ratio was adequate as many of the seniors who move into such developments cannot afford a car.

In the end, the settlement dictates that there will be 136 spots total, 91 for residents and 45 for visitors and business patrons. The building will be seven-stories tall with a tiered-type design.

Mayor Stoddard said the low-cost apartment complex for seniors will fill a need in the city and enliven the area.

“The only activity really on that side of Sunset Drive is the Mack Cycle bicycle store. It’s very, very quiet near City Hall and there’s no pedestrians to speak of,” he said, adding that the deli will promote more foot traffic. “I’ve heard from residents with little or no pensions who are interested in such housing. I know people who have lost their jobs. If you are over 55 and lose your job, it may be hard to get another one.”

Stoddard added that if a family wants to move into a home in South Miami, the grandparents can move into the apartment complex so they can be near their families.

“It’s a selling point for South Miami,” he said.