Tax those wealthy non-residents?

By John Dorschner

    Can Miami start to solve its affordable housing crisis by hitting wealthy non-residents with fees?
    That's one suggestion that came up Wednesday night during a meeting in western Coconut Grove to discuss a long-anticipated city housing master plan being prepared by FIU's Metropolitan Center.
    The idea sparked intense conversation from the several dozen persons who attended the event, co-sponsored by the city and Miami Homes for All, formerly known as the Miami Coalition for the Homeless.
  Annie Lord, executive director of Homes of All, raised three key issues in how to deal with the fact that Miami is the worst city in the country for "cost-burdened households" -- people not being able to afford housing, as FIU noted.
Annie Lord
                                  Three Key Questions
    Lord raised three key questions:
    (1) What to do with the considerable publicly owned land in the city that's vacant? Could this be used to entice developers who promised to do a certain percentage of affordable housing?
    (2) "How can we modify zoning codes moderately" to help foster affordable housing? She emphasized the "moderately" that would keep zoning "still in a healthy, happy place."
    (3) Is it possible to put a fee or tax on vacant properties that would help finance affordable housing? Lord said a 1 percent tax on such places could raise $98 million a year.
    It was this last idea that sparked plenty of questions and ideas.
    It's already a hot topic in New York City, where some pols are talking about what they call a pied-a-terre tax. The Economist describes pied-à-terres as "part-time second homes occupied for less than half the year. Many are simply convenient places to park money and are vacant most of the time. Because their owners have their primary residences out of state, they are not subject to state or local income taxes. Nor do they generate much in local sales-tax revenues."
    Vancouver and London already have such taxes. In New York, the discussion is taxing such homes that are worth more than $5 million. 

                            What's a Pied-a-Terre?
    Miami, of course, has plenty of such expensive residences.  The Brickell area in particular has tons of waterfront apartments owned by Venezuelans, Brazilians and many other wealthy foreigners who seek part-time places where they can put their money, away from the economic uncertainties of their homelands.

   In the Grove Wednesday night, the questions flowed? What's vacant? What's part-time? What would be minimum value for places to be taxed? Maybe $500,000? Maybe $1 million?
    Unsaid was one obvious plus of such a plan: Those who own such units aren't voters, so they can't object directly to special fees, although the developers that sell the units certainly can.
    During the breakout sessions to discuss the plans, one interesting dividing line emerged. Many Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites strongly supported the idea of a vacant-property tax and even mandatory inclusionary zoning, in which large developers would have to include a certain percentage of affordable apartments in their projects.
    But many blacks focused on something else: Protecting their own neighborhoods. A woman wearing a T-shirt that said Crime Survivor for Safety and Justice said in a break-out group that any affordable housing plan should have "the input of the community. No person outside the community should be allowed to live there."
    I responded that if this suggestion was carried too far, it would mean that affordable housing in Brickell, Wynwood or Little Havana might find excuses to exclude blacks.
    But the woman was focused on a more local fear: Some black neighborhoods are gentrifying, with whites moving in and lower-income blacks forced out. Another break-out group, consisting mostly of West Grove residents, was emphatic that their biggest concern was being able to continue to live in their own neighborhoods. Several cited ways in which friends and neighbors could no longer afford to live there.

                         April 26 for draft of Master Plan
    FIU has been working for months on a master plan that is expected to show ways that the city can spend the $100 million of its Miami Forever Bond for affordable housing. FIU showed those attending the Grove meeting charts from its study, but has yet to put up them up on its website. The draft of its master plan is due to be delivered April 26. 

Ken Russell
   Note: This reporter works on the affordable housing committee of Miami PACT -- People Acting Together for Community. PACT is asking the city of Miami to build or preserve 12,000 affordable housing units by 2024 and the county to contribute to $10 million annually to a housing trust fund. City Commissioner Ken Russell has committed to the city goal, while County Commissioners Daniella Levine Cava and Eileen Higgins have committed to the county goal.

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