By Mary Hladky
Boca Raton has an affordable housing problem.
As the cost of homes and apartment rentals rise throughout South Florida, many people who would like to live in Boca can’t afford it, and some have shared their problems with the City Council.
“We have been fortunate in Boca to have increases in property values. We have the highest property valuation of any municipality in Palm Beach County,” said Mayor Scott Singer. “The by-product is housing is becoming less affordable.”
Yet developers had shown no interest in building affordable housing in the city until the Florida Legislature passed the Live Local Act, which went into effect on July 1 and gives them financial incentives in the form of tax breaks and low-interest loans to do so.
Now, they are rushing forward to propose projects that combine market rate and affordable housing and are pressing the council to enact local regulations so they can submit their plans and get the go-ahead to build.
But council members are struggling with how to implement the Live Local Act. In an effort to understand what developers would propose and how the regulations should be crafted, they invited developers to present their project ideas on Sept. 11.
Five developers outlined projects that totaled 1,890 units, including 190 that would be affordable.
In one example, Mutual of America Life Insurance Co. wants to replace its existing office building with a new one, and add retail and 275 residential units, including 28 that are affordable, with one, two or three bedrooms, in the Park at Broken Sound at 1150 Broken Sound Parkway.
A one-bedroom market rate apartment would rent for $2,887 a month, while an affordable unit would be $2,143.
Critics assail the Live Local Act because it lacks clarity and strips away the ability of local elected officials to control what is built within their borders. The new law, they say, is a continuation of years of actions by the Legislature to assume control and override local decision-making.
“It is something that is being forced down our throats,” council member Yvette Drucker said at the Sept. 11 meeting.
The state law says that cities must allow multifamily and mixed-use residential in areas zoned for commercial, industrial or mixed use if at least 40% of units are affordable for people who meet certain income criteria. The units must remain affordable for at least 30 years.
Municipal leaders cannot restrict the density of a project below the highest allowed density on any land in the city. They can’t restrict the height below the highest allowed within one mile of a project. They also can’t impose rent controls.
That leaves cities able to control only matters such as setbacks and parking.
The law has prompted fears that developers will build huge projects after minimal city staff review, and none by the City Council, no matter how much residents don’t want them.
But in Boca Raton, developers and their lawyers told city leaders they have absolutely no interest in building projects with 40% affordable units. The reason: They can’t make enough profit doing so.
Instead, they want to build under a state statute that was amended by the Live Local Act. It allows projects to be built with only 10% affordable units in areas zoned commercial or industrial, throwing doubt on whether that would make much of a dent in the housing crisis. Developers, however, contend it still will create a significant amount of affordable housing.
At an Aug. 22 meeting, developers urged the council to drop their effort to craft a 40% ordinance, or at least put it on a back burner, since it might never be used.
But they pleaded with the council to move rapidly to enact a 10% ordinance so they can move forward quickly to build.
For developers, the 10% option has the advantage of allowing them to build more lucrative market rate units.
But it also helps the city because the statute gives council members discretion to impose controls. Local regulations, including those governing density and height, would not be preempted by the state.
City staff recommended in August that to be eligible for the 10% option, a development must be mixed-use residential, the site must be zoned for commercial or industrial use, be located near a transit stop and its density limited to 20 units per acre, the same limit that now exists in most portions of the city.
Developments with affordable housing under the 40% or 10% options generally would be located in the Midtown area near the Town Center mall, the Boca Raton Innovation
Campus west of Interstate 95 and south of Yamato Road, and the Park at Broken Sound on the north side of Yamato.
They also could be located along Dixie and Federal highways.
Residential is not allowed so far in Midtown. More than 1,000 residential units have been built in the Park at Broken Sound and its owners want to build more. The city recently gave preliminary approval for 1,240 residential units, among many other new uses, at BRIC.
All five developers proposed projects using the 10% option.
Council members generally liked the conceptual plans the five presented. None of them sits next to single-family homes.
“I saw five projects that I think aesthetically will look and feel like what we want,” said Deputy Mayor Monica Mayotte.
But seeing them didn’t do much to help council members resolve how to implement the Live Local Act.
The presentations didn’t impress Development Services Director Brandon Schaad, who has drafted proposed ordinances for the 10% and 40% options.
“Overall, what I heard was ‘we want this,’” he said about the developers. “Why? What makes it rational?”
A big sticking point for council members is that they think the 10% option won’t create enough affordable housing. They grappled with what the city could do to get developers to build more.
The 10% option does not limit developers to that number of affordable units. They could build up to 39% without triggering the loss of city control that happens under the 40% option.
Asked by Singer what the city would have to do to incentivize developers to provide more, Schaad cautioned against allowing developers to control the process.
“If we ask developers what they need to do more, they will say what benefits them,” he said.
City Manager Leif Ahnell suggested keeping it simple and moving gradually for now, since ordinances can be amended after council members can evaluate whether they are satisfied with the results of the first projects that are built.
That’s generally what the council has settled on for now.
They and staff will see if there is a way to persuade developers to increase the number of affordable units to 15%, likely by offering incentives.
They also will cap for now the number of total new units that can be built to no more than 3,000 so they can hit the brakes on more development if the projects are not to their liking.
And to address council member Fran Nachlas’ concern that developers might build a lot of tiny apartments to minimize their costs, 500 square feet will be the smallest that can be built, a 100-square-foot increase.
It is not expected that the council will complete Live Local Act work until sometime in October.
In other city business, council members agreed to spend about $60,000 to repaint the Mizner Park Amphitheater.
Council member Marc Wigder, who also chairs the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, suggested that several months ago, saying the facility looks shabby.
If all goes as planned, the amphitheater will be completely renovated by 2028 when the Center for Arts and Innovation cultural complex is completed. But Wigder thought the existing building needed a better look before then.
It will be painted white with pink trim. The pink will match the lighter shade of pink on the adjacent Boca Raton Museum of Art.