Attorney and new Inman Contributor Rachel Streitfeld examines how changes to Florida’s zoning laws could free up vast tracts of land for high-density new home construction.

The affordable housing landscape in Florida is poised for major changes, thanks to the Live Local Act. Also known as SB-102, this revolutionary piece of legislation is set to encourage the creation of much-needed affordable and workforce housing in a state that has long struggled to adequately incentivize such ventures.

Unlocking commercial and industrial lands for housing

Historically, properties zoned as commercial or industrial within cities such as Miami, Bal Harbour, or Miami Gardens were off-limits for residential construction unless a tedious and often costly zoning change or comprehensive plan amendment was obtained. The Live Local Act changes this narrative.

Now, developers can transform these commercial or industrial parcels into high-density workforce or affordable housing without undergoing the previously necessary bureaucratic, and often political, dragged-out process. This bypass not only saves them thousands of dollars but also significantly cuts down project timelines.

Most importantly, it frees up new land for residential development while ensuring that residential development will be high-density. It means more new homes, adding critical supply to a starving market.

However, as with all new legislation, the Act’s complexity has led to varied interpretations among municipal attorneys. Understandably, officials in Florida’s cities consider “Live Local” an unacceptable preemption of their authority to control local zoning.

Predictably, we have already seen a legal showdown on Miami Beach, arising out of the Jesta Group’s plans for an 18-story transformation to the Clevelander Hotel, located on the historic and iconic stretch of Ocean Drive.

While each jurisdiction will have its distinct approach to implementing the Live Local Act, if litigation is filed by or against Miami Beach, the development community will watch that case very closely. This uncertainty points to the need for thorough consultation with a zoning attorney to understand how the act could impact specific parcels of land in different areas.

The potential impact: A boon for affordable housing

By freeing up vast tracts of land previously earmarked for commercial and industrial purposes, the Live Local Act promises to usher in a new era of affordable housing development. Developers, given the added benefits of tax breaks and other incentives, will likely gravitate toward larger parcels in commercial, industrial and mixed-use zones.

The act only impacts the use, height and density of a proposed project: local parking minimums, setbacks and floor area ratio are not preempted by the new law. The resultant projects are expected to be more feasible than their counterparts in prime areas such as Downtown Miami, where density abounds.

Furthermore, this new wave of housing will bring residents closer to commercial centers, disrupting the traditional living-working (read: commuting) dynamics. One of the goals of the Live Local Act is to enable workers to live closer to their jobs by adding more housing in commercial areas and close to transit.

This shift not only promises better work-life balance for residents, but it also hints at a more sustainable urban design approach that reduces carbon footprints by negating the need for daily long commutes. It is possible to imagine that with more housing near work sites, better transit, and safer, greener sidewalks, more Florida cities could be walkable, urbanist communities.

Detractors and advocates: The ongoing debate

While the Live Local Act has its champions, mainly among developers and cities desperate for more housing, it also has its fair share of detractors.

Some local governments, especially in more affluent communities, are resistant to the idea of high-density workforce housing in their locales. These regions view the act as a potential threat to their exclusive commercial zones, transforming them into mixed-use corridors and bringing the nuisance of construction and added traffic.

Indeed, several Florida cities are already revising their ordinances to address the new law and mitigate its impacts. Some have enacted “zoning in progress,” which is a temporary moratorium on site plan approvals and other development requests for review.

However, on the flip side, several cities and organizations view the act as a much-needed boost to increase housing affordability. The recent surge in construction costs, soaring interest rates, and an increasing tilt toward luxury condominiums means there’s an acute need for affordable housing for essential workers, including firefighters, teachers, bartenders, and public employees such as public defenders. The Live Local Act can potentially fill this glaring void.

Challenges and future prospects

While the legislation promises transformation, challenges remain. Many cities impose parking and massing restrictions, potentially hindering the full realization of the act’s benefits. In fact, Miami Beach is considering a change in its height allowance to avoid having to approve more towers under the act.

There’s also the question of accompanying infrastructure — drainage, wastewater, transit, supermarkets, etc. — which may not be immediately available in regions transforming from commercial to residential. But as history shows, with places like Wynwood evolving from industrial zones to vibrant residential communities, it is likely that the necessary amenities will follow in due course.

Ultimately, the Live Local Act offers a vision of an inclusive, sustainable, and affordable urban future for Florida. While its long-term impact remains to be seen, it is undoubtedly a promising step in the right direction.

Rachel A. Streitfeld, Esq. is a zoning expert with nearly two decades of experience in law and public policy. From the Florida Keys to Port St. Lucie, Rachel has extensive knowledge of local ordinances, county requirements, and statewide regulatory frameworks.  You can connect with Rachel on Linkedin.

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