In one of the least affordable cities in the nation, Miami voters will decide this November whether to create a $100 million fund for housing and economic development grants.
So far, sea rise has been the headliner of Mayor Tomás Regalado’s $400 million Miami Forever general obligation bond. But flying under the radar, a quarter of the money generated by a proposed new property tax would be directed at addressing issues of poverty and inequality — systemic problems exacerbated by the city’s epic growth over the last 20 years.
“I’m tired personally of hearing Miami is truly the tale of two cities, that poor people will no longer be able to afford to live here,” Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon, lobbying for a bigger housing kitty in the bond program, said this summer.
Forbes called Miami the least affordable city for renters in 2017. Last year, Bloomberg found the city was the most unequal in the nation in terms of income disparity, and published a study identifying the real estate market as one of the 10 least affordable areas for first-time home-buyers.
In order to address those issues, Hardemon, who represents Miami’s poorest neighborhoods, used his leverage as a swing vote to increase five-fold what he saw as a token $20 million housing allocation before agreeing to break a tie vote in late July and place the bond program on the Nov. 7 ballot. At his suggestion, commissioners agreed to spread the money among Miami’s five commission districts based on a formula used to distribute federal community development block grants.
That means Hardemon’s district, which includes Liberty City, Little Haiti and Overtown, stands to receive roughly $24.1 million. Another $21.6 million would go to the Little Havana area, $21.2 million to Allapattah, $18.9 million to Flagami and Coral Way, and $14.2 million to the district that includes downtown, Brickell and Coconut Grove. The formula, according to the city’s head of economic development, is based off of poverty, overcrowding and the population of each district.
But while it’s clear where the money would go, exactly how it would be spent remains unclear.
“The idea is to create the money we need to address the problems we have. Sometimes you have to get the money [first],” Hardemon said during an interview at his City Hall office. “We can work out an extensive plan to know how we’ll spend that money up front, dollar for dollar. But then the moment has passed. The housing will continue to be unaffordable.”
Hardemon talks about using some of the money — which would be created by taking on new debt only as old debt comes off the city’s books — to create grants for existing home owners to improve their properties rather than sell them to investors or developers, similar to how the community redevelopment agency he leads has spent bond money on renovating townhome communities in Overtown.
“We have to find a way to keep the housing affordable to protect it and the way you do that is by reinvesting into existing housing. You make those homes resilient. You bring them to code,” said Hardemon, who argued that adding housing and economic development to the bond would make the proposal attractive to a broader segment of Miami’s voting base. “We don’t know how far this can go but you want to make sure they don’t have electrical hazards, and have proper protection from a storm.”
Bobbie Ibarra, the head of Miami Homes for All, a non-profit advocacy group for the homeless and low-income families, said research being conducted with the University of Florida and a D.C. think tank have shown that Miami needs to reinvest in its existing housing stock to keep homeowners from selling as they pay of their mortgages and face the rising cost of living.
“What we’re learning from our research is we’re not doing hardly anything as a community to really entice, incentivize and encourage homeowners to maintain their buildings and also preserve them as affordable units,” she said, though cautioning she wants to learn more specifics: “We’re very excited. We just don’t know what their direction is.”
Commissioner Ken Russell, whose district would receive the smallest allocation if the city does indeed use federal ratios to distribute the money, said some housing advocates in the struggling West Grove have worried about whether the community’s gentrification pressures will be addressed by the bond. Thaddeus Scott, an activist with the community’s Housing for All advocacy group, promised to “keep their feet to the fire.”
Hardemon, though, says he wanted to leave room to decide down the road how to spend the money. He says it’s up to the voters to decide if they embrace the program and trust the city to make good decisions.
“I don’t care who gets the credit,” he said. “If the bond passes, or if it doesn’t, it’s for the people to decide.”