CNCounty News

Not all urban counties have the same housing solution, but they have the same problem

Miami-Dade County, Fla. Commissioner Eileen Higgins tells fellow LUCC members they may have to demolish wasteful space in order to make way for new affordable housing. NACo file photo

In their efforts to tackle the housing affordability crisis, large urban counties must deal with restrictive zoning and land use policies and a lack of buildable land, on top of the nation’s growing housing shortage, rising rent prices and stagnating wages. 

Housing affordability was just one of the big topics that the members of NACo’s Large Urban County Caucus (LUCC) discussed Oct. 4-6 at their symposium in Orange County, Fla., including Artificial Intelligence, workforce development and disaster mitigation.

NACo Housing Task Force members told LUCC members that to combat these barriers, urban counties must get creative, which can include forging local and national partnerships and re-envisioning county land use.

Counties shouldn’t be afraid to tear down existing infrastructure to maximize land potential for affordable housing, Miami-Dade County, Fla. Commissioner Eileen Higgins told LUCC members. 

“The days in a county like Miami-Dade of single-family homes, it’s over,” she said. “…We literally can’t grow without growing ‘up.’ When you have a two-story building with 25 employees in it and surface parking and you can walk across the street to a train station, that is unused county land.

“… That is a waste of people’s land and people’s resources when I could do an office there, I could put up 400 units in a high rise and they could walk to transit and generate rates and property tax revenue over it. So don’t say that your land is full — it isn’t. It’s just full of stuff that you may not need or want anymore that just happened to be built there 30 years ago. It’s fine to demolish things.”

Higgins pointed to Miami-Dade County’s transformation of an 80-unit public housing building on 2 acres across from a train station into 116-unit senior housing, a middle school, 10-unit teacher housing and a 465-unit building, 60% of which are workforce or affordable housing — all on that same 2 acres. It’s essential to factor proximity to transportation into the conversation of housing affordability, Higgins said.  

“Our country is in crisis, people are in crisis,” Higgins said. “They cannot move in traffic, they cannot afford a place to live, so if you have any kind of rapid transit corridor, any kind of good bus route, you really have to use your land better.”

Orange County, Fla. is also working to maximize land potential through its Housing for Tomorrow project — and engaging unconventional partners to do it. 

The county is working with Universal Parks and Resorts and the local housing developer Wendover Housing Partners to create 1,000 units of workforce and affordable housing on 20 acres of land pledged by Universal. 

The property will also include 16,000 square feet of retail space, on-site medical offices, a transportation center, technology cafes, a gym, bike and walking paths and a tuition-free preschool through Bezos Academy.

“We don’t want to see people having to struggle to have childcare or be in a food desert effectively, because you’ve got two miles to walk to get groceries,” said Ryan von Weller, Wendover’s managing director of development. “So, trying to provide everything that’s needed and necessary within a compact footprint was the overall objective when we started doing the master planning here.”

Of the 1,000 units, 600 will be devoted to affordable housing for those with household incomes that total between $34,000 and $50,000, with rent hovering around $1,000, according to von Weller. The remaining 400 units will be workforce housing for those with combined family incomes between $70,000 and $100,000 and will have a land use restriction cap of 100%. 

“This is to help solve the crisis that we’re all currently experiencing with the lack of affordable housing, combined with the net migration of thousands of people to Central Florida on a daily basis,” said Russ Dagon, Universal Creative’s senior vice president of resort development. “… One of the biggest things for us in this development was we did not want to develop a property that was affordable for five, 10, 15 years and then convert it all to market rate and suddenly we no longer have made the impact in the market that we’re hoping to.

“… Central Florida is tens of thousands of units short, and we’re talking about 1,000 [units] if we’re aggressive. That doesn’t make the dent that you would hope, so what we’re trying to do and have had some success in, is to become a role model for other organizations that could then follow suit.”

While the scope and scale of the Housing for Tomorrow project might not be replicable in other large urban counties, it’s an example of making the most out of partnerships, as outlined by NACo’s Housing Task Force. 

Housing is a universal issue, and it’s important elected officials utilize national support networks, including NACo and the National Association for County Community and Economic Development, as well as working closely within the county, said Mary Keating, director of community services for DuPage County, Ill. 

“Not everybody needs to have the same solution, but everybody’s got the same problem,” Keating said. “… Expanding that view beyond sort of what our ‘typical’ model has been, has been really helpful. Also, making sure that our county Board understands this is not a one department [issue].

“Community services isn’t going to solve this issue, building and zoning isn’t going to solve this issue, nor is finance — we all have to collaborate across departments in trying to get this moving forward.”

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