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Miami Herald - November 14, 2005

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Governments set to discuss laws to address housing crisis

Local governments are poised to begin debating proposed laws aimed at affordable housing.

BY LISA ARTHUR AND MATTHEW HAGGMAN

larthur@herald.com

A week after Hurricane Wilma battered South Florida, Eric Joiner found himself homeless; inspectors tagged his Overtown apartment complex unsafe. The 30-year-old bus driver, his girlfriend and four children crowded into a motel room paid for by the city of Miami -- government's quick fix to a crisis.

Now bunking with friends, the Joiners still haven't found a place to live. ''There isn't much out there I can afford,'' said Joiner, who earns $10.70 an hour and paid $525 a month in rent.

There are thousands like Eric Joiner in South Florida.

Hurricane Wilma's punishing slap across the region -- in the midst of a real estate boom that has driven home prices to record highs -- exposed the perils of old, unsafe housing and the looming crisis that local governments' own studies had predicted: South Florida's low- and moderate-income residents will need more than 100,000 homes in the next 10 years -- homes thousands of workers will not be able to afford.

PUSHING FOR ACTION

Several elected officials say the situation won't improve until government compels builders to include affordable housing in their projects.

On Tuesday, Miami-Dade County commissioners plan to consider a draft law that would require developers to include ''workforce housing'' in their projects to target the needs of middle-class home buyers. It seeks to help professionals, such as teachers, police officers and nurses, who may earn as much as $60,000 or more a year but still can't afford to buy a home at today's prices.

Such reforms would be a good start, several affordable housing experts say, but they caution that focusing on workforce housing without finding solutions for low-income families like the Joiners solves one problem on the backs of the most vulnerable.

''We have a large population of people who can't afford what the federal guidelines define as affordable or workforce housing,'' said Rod Petrey, director of the Miami-based Collins Center.

OPEN LAND SCARCE

Petrey and others fear that South Florida's scarcity of open land will soon lead builders to redevelop neighborhoods in the middle corridor of Miami-Dade and Broward, displacing the working poor. People living in and near Liberty City, Overtown and Opa-locka in Miami-Dade and Pembroke Park, Lauderhill and Lauderdale Lakes in Broward could be most at risk.

The concentration of poverty makes the need for so-called inclusionary zoning laws more compelling, advocates say. Such laws, which require a mix of housing for the poor, middle class and wealthy in new developments, were once considered too radical for property-rights-inclined South Florida, even though they're widely used throughout the country.

A study conducted after Hurricane Katrina by the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, found that the city of Miami had a higher rate of concentrated poverty among blacks than New Orleans.

Federal guidelines say affordable housing -- rent or mortgage payments plus utilities -- should cost a household no more than 30 percent of their annual income. For a family of four in Miami-Dade, the median income is $46,350; in Broward, it's $58,100.

However, Miami-Dade ranked first in the country for residents who spent more than 30 percent of their income on rent in 2004, according to the U.S. Census. The county ranked second for burdensome mortgage payments. Broward County ranked 11th on rentals and 23rd on mortgages.

In Broward, the pressure has already begun to escalate, said Ben Graber, a county commissioner.

HOUSES FOR THE RICH

''We're concerned the major corridors will be redeveloped with housing that's too expensive,'' he said. ``Already in downtown Fort Lauderdale we've had redevelopment that isn't even in the workforce range. It's luxury.''

Some officials in Broward and in the cities of Fort Lauderdale and Miami are preparing their own versions of inclusionary zoning laws.

On Graber's agenda: Creating a committee on ''attainable housing.'' It would work with Broward's cities to design a law that would require developers to include affordable housing in their projects or put money in a trust fund. The county would reward them by letting them build more homes or condominiums than current zoning laws permit.

''We'll work with developers, but the goal is not a voluntary program,'' he said.

Graber also advocates local tax credits for developers who build affordable rental homes and apartments for residents caught in the gap between poverty incomes, which trigger federal housing subsidies, and middle-class incomes.

In Miami-Dade, the proposed law would apply to most developments built on land in unincorporated areas. It would require developers to include workforce housing in any new projects. Or developers could seek to pay into an affordable housing trust fund. Another option: Developers could build affordable units on another site in the same neighborhood.

GROWING CRISIS

Affordable housing advocates hope Wilma's aftermath will spur political action that goes beyond quick fixes.

''Wilma exposed the pending crisis and exacerbated it,'' said Jerry Kolo, professor of urban planning at Florida Atlantic University. ``In five years, it won't be a pending crisis. It will be here. We need to do something now.''

A Broward study showed the county needs 15,000 new affordable units a year to keep pace with demand. A Miami-Dade study, based on the 2000 U.S. Census, found the county needs an additional 81,400 housing units for very low- and middle-income residents between 2000 and 2015.

MARKET IMBALANCE

Between 2015 and 2025, the region will need an additional 107,240 affordable units. Even though federal and state governments have long provided tax incentives to encourage developers to build housing for the poor, money to build low-income housing has not kept up with the growing need. Long waiting lists for federal housing vouchers persist. State government, meanwhile, has diverted millions of dollars from its affordable housing trust fund to other projects.

''The reality is if we don't change our way of thinking, we will be in the same situation as the Florida Keys, where they have to import a workforce,'' said Barbara Jordan, the Miami-Dade commissioner who shepherded the proposed workforce housing law.

POSSIBLE RESISTANCE

Home builders prefer a voluntary program, said Andrew Dolkart, co-chair of the county's affordable housing task force and a real estate consultant who counts developers among his clients. So far, home builders have not come out against Jordan's proposal, but Dolkart acknowledged resistance might come.

Objections also could come from communities that don't want affordable housing nearby, fearing property values will fall -- the so-called NIMBY effect, meaning ``not in my backyard.''

Those perceptions have been overcome in other places, said Rebecca Sohmer, a Brookings analyst.

She points to Montgomery County, a Washington, D.C., suburb in Maryland, where zoning laws require that new developments have a mix of housing for the poor, middle class and wealthy.

''I'm sure they had issues in Montgomery County,'' Sohmer said, ``but they've shown people that living next to poor neighbors doesn't bring down housing values. Bad neighborhoods and concentrated poverty do that.''

Herald staff writer Audra D.S. Burch contributed to this report.