Finally declaring a housing affordability crisis, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava and her colleagues face the daunting challenge of trying to make homes more affordable for residents.

“We have become the most unaffordable place in the country,” Levine Cava said Friday, noting that’s “what’s different now.”

As a first step, the county mayor announced the Building Blocks Program, an effort to use $13.4 million in federal funding for Miami-Dade’s emergency rental assistance program to help tenants struggling to pay rent.

The program’s key pieces are: The county will pay up to $3,000 a month to people behind on their monthly rent payments by up to a year; if your landlord raises the rent between 1% and 20%, the county will assist by covering up to 20% of your monthly payment for three months; and for tenants hit with rent hikes of more than 20%, the county will pay a portion of that increase.

Residents with an income below 80% of the county’s annual median income are eligible. That includes individuals earning less than $50,650, couples earning less than $57,650, families of three earning less than $65,100 and families of four earning less than $72,300.

Also, last month the county mayor began requiring property owners to give a 60-day notice, rather than the former 30 days, to tenants when their monthly rents are going to increase by 5% or more.

The county’s festering problem with housing affordability goes back before the pandemic started in March 2020. It has reached an acute level, experts say, that’s diminishing the quality of life and hurting the local economy because employers are increasingly having a tough time hiring and retaining workers as people move to cheaper places to live.

READ MORE: Here’s the communities in Miami-Dade with the cheapest rents

READ MORE: Here are the 10 areas of the county with the priciest apartment rents

Housing advocates and real estate professionals were quick to point out Friday that the county mayor’s action was a response to a dire situation rather than a remedy.

“This is an emergency response; this is not a long-term solution,” said Annie Lord, executive director of nonprofit Miami Homes For All. “What we need is a pipeline of deals.”

To help fill that pipeline of apartment and single-family housing plans, the county should streamline the development and marketing processes of affordable and workforce home developments, including providing easier access to financing to build more homes, Lord said.

For years, locals have struggled to keep up with Latin American home buyers, a pool of purchasers that often has swept up a house or condominium unit with cash. After the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, Miami-Dade experienced an influx of buyers from across the country, further increasing the competition for homes.

Then came another challenge — the ongoing expansion of technology and finance firms to Miami and the surrounding area. These companies attracted their employees and budding entrepreneurs with higher salaries compared to locals’ stagnant wages.

Indeed, Levine Cava attributed Miami-Dade’s housing affordability crisis to new residents and businesses relocating here from other parts of the country.

In recent months, the slim supply of homes available to buy forced housing prices to skyrocket to historic levels. Sale prices jumped year-over-year by almost 20% for single-family houses in February, to $536,000 from $450,000. For condos, prices soared 27% to $380,000 from $300,000.

Aspiring buyers priced out of buying remain in the rental market, but often find it’s unaffordable to rent.

READ MORE: Here’s who is eligible and how to apply for the rental assistance

The county has a median rent of $1,600 a month, with some neighborhoods reaching monthly medians as high as $4,100, and few affordable areas. In light of the soaring housing prices, many locals have exited the market, following a second-year trend in the county’s population decline.

What’s more, hundreds of Miami-Dade renters continue to be displaced, as real estate developers buy existing older apartment buildings carrying lower rents to either flip and then boost rental prices or demolish and replace them with new luxury homes. Displacements are occurring across the county, but profoundly in places like Coral Gables, Edgewater and Hialeah.

“It appears that what the mayor is doing is addressing the issue at hand on more of an emergency basis,” said Ned Murray, associate director of the Jorge M. Pérez Metropolitan Center for economic and housing research at Florida International University.

“The rents are so high right now that people are having to leave their apartments without any place to go. She’s really done something that was necessary from an emergency standpoint.”

Murray said a cohesive plan is just as important as Levine Cava’s housing affordability crisis declaration and launch of the Building Blocks program.

“We’re still 70,000 workers short from where we were at the beginning of COVID,” he said. “The economy is still struggling here in Miami-Dade. The working class of Miami-Dade, there is very little quality of life and they are living in constant stress.”

Murray had worked on an assessment of Miami-Dade housing before the pandemic and he already had identified a local housing affordability crisis.

The county can do more than provide renter assistance, including expediting permits on new affordable and workforce housing projects in the county, said Stephanie Berman-Eisenberg, chief executive officer and president of Carrfour Supportive Housing. Her organization offers guidance on resources for those searching for affordable and workforce housing as well as spearheading new developments across South Florida.

“It’s only one piece of that puzzle,” she said of emergency financial help for tenants. “It’s not going to get a family a house. It is a quick fix. I understand why that’s always the first reaction, because you can do that quickly.”

More housing is part of the solution, said Christina Pappas, vice president of The Keyes Company, a longtime independent Florida real estate firm.

“We need to seek out any and all opportunities to create new affordable housing units to help address the shortfall in rental housing stock, perhaps by exploring public-private partnerships,” Pappas said.

The county mayor’s declaration follows another similar announcement by the city of Miami. Commissioners declared a public emergency last month, allowing the city to award no-bid contracts and expedite affordable housing projects.

But, Berman-Eisenberg said, she hasn’t seen much of a difference. “We’re still getting the same number of calls.”

This story was originally published April 8, 2022 2:58 PM.