The Florida Influencer Series

How much vacant housing is there in Florida? You asked, we answered

Daniel Satizabal, born and raised in Miami, is paying off his student loans and soon looking to buy a home instead of renting one.

But since his friend tried to make an offer on a home in Tampa and was outbid by a foreign investor, Satizabal has been feeling discouraged. He sees new developments popping up across the state but wonders how many of them are even being occupied by full-time residents.

“It makes you question who they are building these [condos] for?” Satizabal, 29, asked. “There’s such a disparity between the value of these places and the median income of people working in these cities.”

Following an affordable housing-related survey of the Florida Influencers, a group of 50 prominent political and policy figures from across the state, the Miami Herald asked readers what they want to know about how we live in Florida.

Satizabal asked: How many vacant homes are in Florida, and what is the extent of this problem?

As it happens, there are quite a few.

Using data recorded by the U.S. Census Bureau, online loan marketplace LendingTree found earlier this year that 17.09% of Miami’s 2 million households were vacant. Vacancies include housing that is for seasonal use, for sale, for rent or unoccupied.

The March 2019 study found that the top three U.S. cities with the highest vacancy rates were all in Florida: Miami had the highest percentage, followed by Orlando (16%) and Tampa (15.3%), where Satizabal now lives and works as a structural engineer.

LendingTree’s chief economist, Tendayi Kapfidze, told Miami Herald partner WLRN in March that such households have limited the supply of available housing.

“Vacant homes that people use occasionally throughout the year are not available to people who live in Miami full time,” Kapfidze said. “It means that those people are competing for a slightly smaller pool of homes than they would have otherwise.”

When it comes to building new affordable housing, however, most real estate developers will cite “scarcity” of vacant land as one of the biggest hurdles in Miami-Dade County.

However, a new mapping tool unveiled last spring by the University of Miami showed 500 million square feet of vacant or underutilized land scattered across the county.

“The ... tool can play an instrumental role in developing the affordable housing we desperately need right now,” Annie Lord, executive director of Miami Homes For All, told the Miami Herald. Miami Homes for All is a nonprofit group devoted to combating homelessness.

Lord is also a Florida Influencer, who when polled was in the majority of Influencers who said the state should dedicate 100% of money in the two trust funds for affordable housing instead of sweeping it for other uses.

“Half a billion square feet of vacant or underused publicly owned land could represent an enormous opportunity,” she said. “While we realize not every lot is suitable for this housing, certainly some of it is.”

One idea to help solve affordable housing in Miami — taxing vacant property — has been widely discussed, and is successful in cities like Vancouver

The city implemented the tax in 2017 to encourage absentee owners to rent out vacant homes and help ease the city’s housing shortage.

At a press event to announce the findings of a new housing report in May, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said he was wary of using a vacancy tax to generate affordable housing dollars.

“I’ve usually been against taxes or fees of any kind,” he said.

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Samantha J. Gross is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.