Miami-Dade County

At budget hearing, Miami-Dade residents demand action on housing costs

One resident after another took their two minutes before a county microphone Thursday night to plead with Miami-Dade commissioners to take action on affordable housing.

“When I pay my rent, I have nothing left in my pocket,” Bruno Wissiey, a hotel worker from Little Haiti, said through a Creole translator during the first of two budget hearings on a proposed $8.9 billion spending plan.

There’s about $645 million for housing in the budget proposed by Mayor Carlos Gimenez in July and given preliminary approval after 10 p.m. by the 13-seat board. Housing spending is up 15 percent from the current budget year, which ends Sept. 30.

Even with more money on paper, advocates complain Miami-Dade takes too long to get housing projects going, with millions of dollars of subsidies rolling over from one year to the next. A Miami-Dade program giving away county-owned lots for affordable housing is only producing about two dozen new homes a year. An affordable-housing fund once billed as on track to grow $10 million a year is set to receive a windfall of $3 million in the 2020 budget, but that will only bring its balance to $12 million.

Commissioners offered no good news to constituents on the housing front at the five-hour hearing, except to say they got the message and shared the frustration. There’s also a county housing summit scheduled for Oct. 7.

“I think we all heard loud and clear tonight: affordable housing. As we hear all the time. Affordable housing is a real crisis. Funding the affordable-housing trust fund is crucial,” Commissioner Eileen Higgins said. “But actually getting the money spent is part of what we need to do, rather than just getting it in the budget.”

Michael Liu, the county’s housing director, said Miami-Dade dollars sit idle because they fund only a portion of the private-sector projects that provide the bulk of affordable housing in the county. Developers face tougher competition for state and federal dollars, leading to county funds tied up in allocations but remaining unspent from one budget to another. About $190 million in unspent county housing dollars from 2019 is being carried over to 2020.

“It’s very complex,” Liu said. “We are capped by county ordinance to fund the maximum of 25 percent [of a housing project]. They have to find 75 percent elsewhere. That’s the challenge of affordable housing.”

With proposed property tax rates basically flat — an increase in Miami-Dade’s debt tax boosts the overall rate by less than 1 percent — and an administration pledge of no service cuts, most of the budget passed by wide margins or without a single No vote. The one exception was the portion of the budget on fees, including higher water rates. That passed 7 to 6, with No votes coming from Esteban “Steve” Bovo, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Joe Martinez, Rebeca Sosa, Javier Souto and Xavier Suarez.

“I realize this budget is not perfect,” Gimenez said. “None are.”

The 5 p.m. hearing ended at 10:23 p.m., a relatively early adjournment compared to years when the sessions stretched well into the following day. While most seats were full, the first of two budget hearings for 2020 did not bring a capacity crowd. The final hearing, followed by a final budget vote, starts at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 19.

Several groups appeared to ask for increases in existing funding from Miami-Dade. The South Florida Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals asked for an additional $200,000 to the $200,000 it already receives under a contract to rescue and care for mistreated and injured large animals, such as horses and pigs.

Julie Shelton, a board member of the group, told commissioners the story of Bubba the Camel, who was left so emaciated by an owner in Homestead that both of his humps had collapsed. “He’s now in a sanctuary,” Shelton said. “He has enough fat now to get one hump up.”

Advocacy group Miami Homes For All asked commissioners to add $60 million to the 2020 budget to create and preserve affordable housing across the county. Other advocates urged Miami-Dade to rethink existing programs, and work harder at finding places to live for people on lower income scales.

“You talk about affordable housing,” said Overtown resident Debra Davis. “Affordable for who?”

Marleine Bastien, of the Family Action Network Movement, a group that advocates for Haitian women in Miami, said gentrification in Miami’s lower-income neighborhoods is rapidly making the affordability crisis worse.

“What kind of a community are we building?” she asked commissioners.