Housing USA: Miami

6 min read

Densifying Public Housing

If U.S. cities want to create far more quality affordable units on public housing sites, they’ll need to follow two strategies: The first is to leverage funds from HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, since it has become the main funding mechanism to repair and manage old public housing. The second is to better use land on these sites, which even some early RAD applicants haven’t done. American public housing generally has a garden city layout that features low densities and lots of open space. Because these complexes often inhabit valuable infill land, they’re a major underutilized asset, and will need a different design to generate more housing.

Miami is set to follow both these steps, making it unusual for a U.S. city. In August, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced that HUD had approved a countywide transfer of its public housing portfolio to RAD. This will include rehabilitation of 6,426 existing units, and another 6,000 to 10,000 new units built on-site. The old units will be available to voucher recipients; the new units will be “affordable to workforce,” says Michael Liu, director of Public Housing and Community Development (PHCD), which is the Miami-Dade department overseeing the transfer. That means they’ll house people making 60 to 140 percent area median income, and include a market-rate component. The new housing will add significant density to these sites, some of which sit near the many private skyscrapers that’ve helped make Miami a global destination.

“I think where we are different,” says Liu, “is that as part of our redevelopment that we have planned, it’s not just one-for-one replacement…Because of our market, which is active, and still hot, we’re going to do more than what we’re doing now in terms of density.”

Along with retail, the new developments will be some mix of townhomes; six-to-seven story mid-rises; and buildings over 20 stories. Miami has one of the nation’s largest public housing bureaucracies, with over 9,000 units spread across 105 sites, according to its webpage. Under RAD, more than two-thirds of these units will be renovated, and the new construction will also be dispersed.

The redevelopment will occur in multiple phases, with PHCD now focusing on the first nine projects, which will generate 1,100 new units. Some of these projects are already allowed by-right, due to previous land deals between the city and developers; others are navigating the RFP process; and the remaining projects are part of PHCD’s long-term plans, and will depend on funding from HUD, Low Income Housing Tax Credit and the private sector. Proceeds from the redevelopments will go back to the developers and to the PHCD. Estimated timelines for completion of all 16,000 units, should it reach that number, is five to seven years.

Related Urban Development, which is part of Related Group, the development firm led by famed Miami city builder Jorge Perez, is a leading participant. Before this RAD conversion, the city had partnered with Related and HUD on the Liberty Square project. This was an 80-year-old public housing complex in the notorious Liberty City area that is being converted into a $300 million, 1,455-unit, mixed-use project. Related received a $4 million fee for its work on that deal.

An anchor development in this RAD conversion is Related’s work along River Park. This will be a 900-unit conversion of senior housing near the Miami River. The city has long tried to improve place-making along the river, and this is a crucial stretch, as it abuts Marlins Park in Little Havana. In total, Related is converting eight projects and 1,000 units as part of Miami’s RAD experiment, says Albert Milo, Jr., president of Related Urban.

Liu says the RAD money will be key to making these ambitious plans happen. Before, projects like Liberty Square would take ten years, if they happened at all, “Because you didn’t have a RAD funding-based platform,” he says. “You’re out there scrambling and working with all kinds of different timelines to get the different sources of funding you need to make things work.”

But with some RAD funding in place, PHCD will execute these first phases, using them to show HUD that it can be trusted with further responsibility and funds.

The other big factor behind PHCD’s redevelopment ability is the zoning. Liu says that many public housing sites are already zoned for relatively-high density, and that all this new development will in some cases just require mild waivers. This is due to a political acceptance towards growth in Miami-Dade County, and the wider region. I’ve written various times about the local embrace of skyscrapers, from the high-rise neighborhood that was rapidly built these last two decades in Brickell, to the coastal skyline spreading from South Beach to Fort

Lauderdale. Acceptance of this growth starts with the body politic, and extends to Miami-Dade’s mayor and board of commissioners, who approve projects in the county – and happen to encompass PHCD’s board.

Liu claims this pro-growth mindset is due to local awareness of Miami’s housing crisis, which is reinforced by a recent study claiming the city needed 50,000 more units.

“There’s been a strong recognition over the past four or five years that housing affordability is at a crisis point here,” Liu says. “Story after story about how the Miami-Dade metro area ranks anywhere from #1 to #3 in cost burden.”

Milo concurrs, claiming this recognition goes back even further.

“Maybe over the last decade or so, Miami has realized that they have a real affordability issue…You used to hear, ‘Oh New York has an affordability crisis, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago.’ And Miami wasn’t necessarily part of that conversation. But we’ve quickly gotten there. [This has] created the urgency for Miami to think boldly.”

Miami’s RAD conversion, which will likely more than double the number of units on its public housing sites, is an example of this bold thinking. It’s also a distinction from other cities. As I’ve noted previously, San Francisco’s expensive RAD conversion did not add to the portfolio, merely rehabbing mostly suburban-style housing throughout the city. New York City’s transfer to RAD has been incremental, with most public housing management still under the beleaguered New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). Any attempt to add housing by redeveloping and “regriding” NYCHA projects gets fierce political backlash. Miami is thus an outlier, and a model for how future public housing redevelopment could look elsewhere – denser, taller and more urban.

Story Contacts:
Albert Milo, Jr.
President, Related Urban Development
Contact Jenna D’Aniello jenna@zcommunications.com

Michael Liu
Director, Miami-Dade Public Housing and Community Development