Monday, February 8, 2016

The loss of affordable South Beach apartments is a setback for Miami Beach's sustainability

In 2013 I wrote a post Miami Beach bikes (and walks) to work about why affordable housing matters for sustainability on Miami Beach.Not many people know that Miami Beach is one of the top cities in the country in the percentage of residents who get to work by walking or biking. Service industry workers are to thank for the city's high ranking on this measure - roughly half walk or bike to their jobs in hotels and restaurants. And the fact that so many are able to get to work without driving is a huge benefit to the city in terms of reduced traffic and pollution. 

But this is only possible because there is still enough housing, even in South Beach, that’s at least somewhat affordable for hotel and restaurant workers. Until recently it was still possible to get a studio or 1-bedroom for around $1,000 a month. That’s still a high rent for someone making minimum wage, but the census data shows that some are able to make it work. Perhaps that’s because paying more to live in South Beach saves a 2-3 hour commute by bus from less expensive neighborhoods, or the expense and hassle of a car.  

But last week the Miami Herald reported that 15 of these buildings were sold to a developer who plans to renovate them and increase rents by 35%-50%, effectively displacing probably hundreds of working class residents. 

Many of these buildings are in poor condition and need to be renovated. But instead of renovating to a modest standard and maintaining at least some level of affordability for current residents, the buyer, Boardwalk, plans to use luxury features like granite countertops to attract "people who drive Porsches and are drawn to Miami Beach but don’t want to live in high rises." As several people pointed out in comments on the article’s webpage, the likely result will be increased traffic and parking problems for the city, which is already experiencing frustration from residents over these issues.    

The loss of this housing for working class residents is a setback for Miami Beach and its goal to establish a reputation as a sustainable city. A Boardwalk representative suggested that current residents could move to North Beach where rents are cheaper and where “you don’t lose much by being up there in terms of location.” But you do lose the ability to walk to work at a South Beach hotel, and there are no safe bikeways from North Beach to South Beach.

Besides, the city has plans for redevelopment in North Beach as well, which will eventually have the same effect of driving up housing prices as has happened in South Beach over the last few decades.

Some argue that gentrification is inevitable, just the “market” at work. But there are ways of preserving affordable housing, just like there are ways of preserving historic buildings, or environmentally sensitive areas, or other assets deemed valuable. The city could work with the buyer of the South Beach properties to renovate to a more modest standard and preserve affordability. It could make sure policies like inclusionary zoning are in place in North Beach before it’s too late.

If Miami Beach is going to have a sustainable environment and economy, it needs to have a plan to make sure housing is available for a range of incomes, not just wealthy residents or vacationers. The city’s future depends on a clean environment, good quality of life, and a vibrant social fabric, and that makes affordable housing an asset worth preserving.  

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