By Mary Hladky

After eight months of protracted debate over how to implement the state’s Live Local Act in Boca Raton, City Council members on Feb. 13 cast their final votes on ordinances and city comprehensive plan changes that clear the way for developers to submit their plans for projects that include affordable housing.

Now that city rules are in place, officials expect to immediately receive many project applications from developers who have pressed council members hard to act quickly so they can build.

But the council’s work may not be finished. Bills to make changes to the state law that went into effect on July 1 were working their way through the state Legislature this session, and whatever passes may mean cities that have enacted local legislation will have to make changes to come into conformity. The session is scheduled to end on March 8.

While council members realize that many people who want to live in the city can’t afford to do so because of the surging costs of homes and apartments, implementing the state law that encourages developers to build affordable housing was fraught.

The reason is that the Live Local Act strips away the ability of local elected officials to control what is built within their borders. The law, critics contend, is a continuation of years of actions by the Legislature to assume control and override local decision-making.

“This is something that is being forced down our throats,” Council member Yvette Drucker said at a Sept. 11 meeting.

But developers who want to take advantage of financial incentives included in the law to build affordable housing wanted fast action.

“We have five (projects) that are ready to go,” prominent land use attorney Bonnie Miskel told the council on Aug. 22. “We need your help. We need to get these into the pipeline. Let’s give the market an opportunity to do it.”

Yet council members were not willing to rush ahead as they searched for whatever they could do, no matter how limited, to safeguard the city from the construction of huge developments that are not compatible with the areas in which they would be built.

The law has sparked outrage in cities across the state. In Miami-Dade County, for example, the village of Bal Harbour is seeking to block the proposed construction of a high-rise hotel and residential towers in an area where 90% of voters in 2021 rejected a proposal to build over current height limits. In Doral, city officials fought a 17-acre high-rise residential and commercial development next to a community of two-story townhomes before reaching a settlement that reduces the height of the buildings.

And there are complaints that the Live Local Act has yet to produce much housing that is actually affordable.

The 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 the units are affordable for people who meet certain income criteria. The units must remain affordable for at least 30 years.

The law does not allow city leaders to 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 1 mile of a project. They also can’t impose rent controls.

That leaves cities able to control matters such as setbacks and parking.

Another option exists under a state statute that was amended under the Live Local Act. It allows projects to be built with only 10% affordable units in areas zoned commercial or industrial.

That is more palatable to city officials because the statute gives them discretion to impose controls. Local regulations, including those governing density and height, would not be preempted by the state.

Developers told council members they prefer that option because it allows them to build more market-rate units which are more lucrative. They shunned the 40% option because they can’t make enough profit building so many affordable units.

But projects that include only 10% affordable units won’t do much to resolve the need for more affordable housing.

So the council offered incentives that it hopes will boost the number of affordable units to at least 15%. A developer with a 10% project could build up to 20 units per acre. A 15% project could build up to 25 units per acre.

The projects cannot abut single-family properties or Palmetto Park Road east of the Intracoastal Waterway. Sidewalks and canopy trees will be required along street frontages. And affordable units cannot be of lesser quality than market-rate units in the same building.

The council also capped the number of new units that can be approved in 10% projects at 2,500 for now. If council members don’t like the new projects being built, they can put the brakes on any more construction.

In the last of a series of votes since October, the council on Feb. 13 voted 4-1 in favor of the ordinance that allows 10% projects, with Deputy Mayor Monica Mayotte dissenting.
She said she strongly supports affordable housing, but disagreed with changes other council members added to the ordinance. They were micromanaging, Mayotte said, and moving far afield from the goal of getting more affordable housing.

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