Op-Ed

Vacant land in Miami-Dade could help ease affordable-housing crisis | Opinion

New tool aggregates and visualizes the locations of all vacant and underutilized county, municipal and institutional land.
New tool aggregates and visualizes the locations of all vacant and underutilized county, municipal and institutional land. University of Miami Center for Civic and Community Engagement

Miami is in the middle of an affordable-housing crisis. The latest evidence of this, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is that almost two-thirds of Miami’s lower-income renters are spending at least half of their income on rent — more than any other city in the country. Moreover, an April 2019 Freddie Mac study found that Greater Miami ranks as the least affordable metro area in the nation because of high rental costs and comparatively modest income levels. In fact, its affordable housing stock is ever more in demand and out of reach thanks to several trends, including skyrocketing construction costs and low wages.

Exacerbating matters, Miami also has the highest household vacancy rate in the country because of the thousands of secondary residences that are taken off the real-estate market. Home purchases are increasingly inaccessible to conventional buyers, as cash purchases represent 40 percent of all home sales in Miami, double the national rate.

The problem is made even more acute with the growing impact of climate change. The surge in extreme weather events and rising sea levels have buyers racing to purchase land located on Miami’s higher-ground neighborhoods, further displacing long-time residents — particularly communities of color. This is a tragic twist of fate, considering these same communities were forced to move there decades ago because of segregation, displacement, red-lining and other discriminatory practices.

As a result, local officials and real estate developers have claimed for decades that Miami-Dade simply doesn’t have enough available land to devote to affordable housing. This conventional wisdom has long been the default response to questions about why there aren’t more affordable-housing units, parks, schools and other important community resources that require land.

Fortunately, there is a solution that could help Miami address the scarcity of accessible homes, one that shows that Miami can no longer claim “land poverty” as a legitimate obstacle to creating more affordable housing. A new online tool developed by the University of Miami in collaboration with Citi has revealed 500 million square feet — a combined area roughly the size of Manhattan — of vacant or underused county, municipal or institution-owned land in Miami-Dade County.

This tool, called LAND — Land Access for Neighborhood Development — aggregates and visualizes the locations of all vacant and underutilized county, municipal and institutional land, assisting elected officials, planners, developers, and community groups to identify areas for potential affordable-housing development and other opportunities. While not every parcel of this land is viable for development, there are significant opportunities to aggregate land owned by different jurisdictions and leverage new models for creating long-term affordable housing, such as the South Florida Community Land Trust.

It is time for Miami to mobilize more of this public land to combat poverty and financial fragility. The first step is to build consensus across the community around a set of values and criteria for its use. The next step is to identify a first batch of properties and development projects that fit those criteria. Finally, legislators must take action to convey those properties and implement those projects to promote equitable and inclusive development in Miami.

A host of Miami’s elected leaders — including Miami Mayor Francis Suarez — have committed resources and taken innovate steps to tackle the affordable-housing crisis. So has the Miami-Dade County Department of Public Housing and Community Development. LAND offers another major opportunity, and it’s time to seize it.

Ines Hernandez is senior vice president of Citi Community Development (Florida). Robin F. Bachin is assistant provost for civic and community engagement at the University of Miami.

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