Miami Beach

Could granny flats help Miami Beach affordable housing crunch? City wants to find out

Look behind the houses in some Miami Beach neighborhoods and you’ll find guest houses and granny flats tucked away in the backyard.

But apart from hosting visiting relatives, the accessory dwellings aren’t much use to Miami Beach homeowners because they can’t be legally rented.

That could soon change. Miami Beach commissioners gave initial approval Wednesday to allowing homeowners to rent their accessory dwellings for more than six months at a time. Elected officials hope the move will provide new affordable housing options for low- and middle-income renters and extra income for homeowners.

“This is right on so many levels. If we’re talking about affordable, work-force housing this is one way of addressing it,” said Commissioner Ricky Arriola, who sponsored the proposal. “If we want to help create some economic vitality in these older homes, particularly for the older couples that may be living in them who don’t have the economic means anymore,” he added.

Bayshore homeowner Silvia Winitzky has a two-story guest house in her backyard that she would like to rent out if Miami Beach changes a law banning the rental of accessory dwelling units. Courtesy of Silvia Winitzky

The proposed law would allow homeowners to rent existing accessory dwellings in all single-family neighborhoods and to build new ones as long as they meet certain size requirements. The dwellings can be attached or detached from the main house, but they have to be on the same property. The city’s planning department defines the units as “small living units” with their own kitchen and bathroom.

Miami Beach currently has approximately 320 single-family lots with either two units or additional living quarters, according to information from the Miami-Dade Property Appraiser’s geographic information system, which was shared by a city spokeswoman.

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Silvia Winitzky, a Bayshore homeowner with a two-story guest house in her backyard, told the Miami Herald that the proposal would be a win-win for the city.

Winitzky, who is in her early 60s, said that being able to rent out her guest house would provide helpful supplemental income now that she’s nearing retirement. She said she’s seen neighbors sell their homes and move away from Miami Beach because of the island’s high cost of living.

Accessory dwellings would also provide much needed affordable housing options for renters, Winitzky added. “What better way, for people who do have those homes, than to be able to rent them to our police and our nurses and our teachers?” she said.

Sarah Leddick, a Mid-Beach resident who sits on the city’s affordable housing advisory committee, said the committee wholeheartedly supports the idea.

“We’re kind of in a crisis right now in Miami Beach because it’s become so expensive that it’s hard for the middle class to stay here,” she said. “It’s going to become a ghost town,” Leddick added, referring to the practice of wealthy investors snapping up Beach properties they don’t plan to occupy. “We need to be able to preserve the middle class by allowing this affordable housing.”

Although Leddick’s home doesn’t have an accessory dwelling, she said she would consider building one if the city allows them to be rented.

But some residents worry that allowing homeowners to rent out their guest houses could create more opportunities for illegal short-term rentals, said Commissioner Joy Malakoff.

“Neighborhood associations evidently just got wind of it now and some of them have concerns about their neighbors now having units on their property where they will be renting them and who’s going to make sure it’s really six months and a day as opposed to becoming short-term rentals,” Malakoff said.

Miami Beach currently prohibits rentals of six months or less in most residential areas and punishes violators with hefty fines that start at $20,000. Despite the steep fines, however, a thriving short-term rental market persists.

The proposed law would only allow homeowners to rent accessory dwellings if they’re living in the main house, which supporters say will deter residents from renting out their extra space to partyers.

“If this is your home and you’re going to rent short-term for someone to come to the back of your house, you’re not going to rent to parties,” Winitzky said.

Elected officials unanimously approved the idea Wednesday, but it still has to come back to the commission for a final vote next month.

Accessory dwellings were a popular fixture of single-family homes built in the early 1900s, according to a city memo on the topic, but cities started to prohibit them after World War II.

As housing costs have increased in many urban areas, however, cities are once again allowing homeowners to build accessory dwellings. Seattle, Portland, Austin and Minneapolis allow accessory dwellings, according to the memo, and Miami allows homeowners to build and rent the units in some neighborhoods.

Florida law permits accessory dwellings in cities where the local government has identified a shortage of affordable rentals. In order to obtain a building permit for an accessory dwelling, the state statute requires homeowners to sign an affidavit stating that they plan to rent the unit to a “low-income” or “moderate-income” person at an affordable rate. The Florida Housing Finance Corporation defines an affordable rate in Miami-Dade County as up to $1,771 for a one-bedroom unit.