Density isn’t a dirty word. Miami-Dade has got to tackle its housing crisis — for real | Editorial

·4 min read
askowronski@miamiherald.com

Amid the housing crisis in South Florida, Miami-Dade County has been floating two proposals that would increase housing density as a way to address the increasingly dire situation in our community.

One, from Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, would make it easier to build “infill” housing — including single-family homes, townhouses and duplexes — on existing properties outside city limits but inside the Urban Development Boundary, the planning line that divides suburbs from farmland and the Everglades.

Another, put forward by County Commissioner Oliver Gilbert, would allow taller buildings near transit lines in cities in an effort to address traffic congestion simultaneously with affordability. That proposal, to extend into city limits density increases that the county already allows in its Rapid Transit Zone, has triggered strong — and successful — opposition from cities, and is now watered down.

Both ideas, though, raise the same central question: Should we build homes closer together to create a bigger housing supply and, in the process, we hope, generate more affordable housing? The short answer is Yes. As always, though, the hard part is actually getting it done.

Adding density to housing — more housing on less land, whether through taller buildings or subdivided lots or row houses — isn’t a new idea. But it has taken on much greater urgency in our region with rents soaring and home purchases long out of reach for so many. Working families are being forced out. The middle class is struggling. Wages don’t keep up with housing costs, not even close. Communities need to attract new workers to thrive. Homestead Mayor Steven Losner recently told a meeting of area mayors that he knows of people “living in metal tool sheds” as a result of the affordability crisis.

A larger supply of housing would, the theory goes, bring down costs, especially if many of those dwelling units are more affordable, as duplexes and townhouses and apartments can be. More housing on existing property within the UDB also would relieve some of the pressure to move it, something environmentalists rightly decry.

Workforce-housing effort failed

It’s not like we haven’t known for years that we needed more housing for workers, including the middle class. It’s the will to get it done that’s been lacking: In 2016, then-Commissioner Barbara Jordan pushed for legislation to require that developers include affordable housing in new buildings. Developers, no surprise, were opposed. They liked the existing “voluntary” approach. The commission, in a short-sighted move, rejected the idea.

Levine Cava’s idea, which emerged as a compromise with County Commission Chairman Jose “Pepe” Diaz last month, harnesses existing land (in unincorporated areas only, where county zoning rules apply) that can support more housing because it’s undeveloped or not fully developed.

Levine Cava told the Editorial Board that the county faces a choice: “Pave over paradise or plan smartly and efficiently.” Her proposal, she said, would promote more efficient use of land. It would loosen some zoning requirements, allowing for more division of lots and other slight increases in density, depending on the underlying land-use requirements. The county estimates that could generate another 38,000 housing units — or more than 100,000 units if additional changes are made by upping density along major corridors. The impact would be scattered around the county, not concentrated in any one area. That’s a plus for individual communities worried about a sudden increase in homes.

Levine Cava’s proposal is in the early stages. Critically important issues like traffic and drainage and impacts on the character of communities would be regulated as usual, but would have to be fully aired out in public — and that means making sure, on a neighborhood level, that residents have a chance to voice any concerns.

In general, though, the idea of adding housing through infill and more density, within reason, is something this community must be open to, as long as it’s done in a rational and controlled way.

And yet Gilbert’s proposal to increase density around transit, which has been long discussed and makes sense from a community-planning perspective, hit major turbulence from cities worried about degradation of their communities. What started out as an admittedly “big and difficult” proposal to force municipalities to accept increased housing density near six public transportation routes has turned into something much more voluntary. We have been down the “voluntary” path before, and we know how that will go.

We understand that people in communities chose to live there because they like it the way it is. That’s reasonable. But a compromise, with real requirements to add density, has to be reached. Density can no longer remain a city-by-city decision — it has to be, as Gilbert rightly put it, “a community goal.” We have to make sure that no one else in Miami-Dade County is forced to live in a tool shed because they can’t afford real housing.

Surely, that’s something we can agree on.

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