Miami’s Omni district to bring affordability, walkability for mixed-income communities

In recent years, developers have transformed Miami’s Arts and Entertainment District into a walkable apartment metropolis. 

Members of the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency say they’re working to make plans all-inclusive, featuring housing projects for homeless people, middle-income service workers and young professionals.

Throughout the past century, the area has been home to a variety of development projects. What began as a high-end shopping district in the 1920s was consolidated into one big mall in the 1970s. Once that failed, the district fell into a state of urban blight.

After property taxes increased in the 1990s, the agency had enough revenue to invest in what it called “catalytic projects,” such as the Adrienne Arsht Center. The performing arts center, which opened in 2006, helped the district make a name for itself as a cultural hub– and since then, the area has been rapidly gentrifying.

Now, five years after a grand jury report bashed the agency for having defeating priorities, the CRA has a series of projects lined up to address the issues it was created to solve, such as old, run-down buildings and a lack of affordable housing.

“There’s a variety of levels of need throughout the county,” said Adam Old, the CRA’s director of policy and planning. “And we’re trying to hit all of those levels of need simultaneously.”

In 2018, the Miami City Commission approved a mandatory inclusionary zoning ordinance for the T6-24B zone, which covers parts of the district. The ordinance allows developers to build with more square footage as long as some of their units are restricted as affordable or workforce housing for at least 30 years.

Among future projects are NR Investments’ Uni Tower, to be built next to their recently opened CANVAS Condominiums, and Magellan Housing’s Wynwood Works, which will be located in the northern corner of the Omni district, next to KUSH.

NR Investments marketing specialist Ignacio Marquez said the ordinance fulfills their plans for the area, which they were first attracted to about eight years ago for its central location among public transport stations and other up-and-coming neighborhoods.

“We had a vision of creating a building where the locals would live at,” Marquez said. “Our premise with the Arts and Entertainment District is to bring the people first– and then build.”

All of the units at Uni Tower will be designated as affordable or workforce housing– a first for the agency. Marquez said they expect to begin construction this year, which should last 18-24 months.

Although Uni Tower’s exact income restrictions are unclear, the city’s ordinance defines affordable housing as being restricted to people making up to 80% of the area median income, which is currently $61,000 per year. Workforce housing is for those making up to 140% of this, and is typically marketed to workers like police officers, teachers and nurses– people who don’t qualify for affordable housing but can’t afford high-end condos either.

But Magellan Housing and Haslem Housing Ventures, led by Miami Heat player Udonis Haslem, are taking these limits a step further. Their next project, Wynwood Works, begins with 10% of the units being restricted to people earning up to 30% of area median income.

Of that 10%, half will be allocated to people coming out of homelessness. The Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust will help to facilitate this transition.

The rest of the units will have separate restrictions, with income brackets working their way up to the 140% limit.

City commissioner Ken Russell said the building will be the first affordable housing project in Wynwood since the neighborhood began to be developed. Although it doesn’t fall within the ordinance’s zone, the CRA purchased the land specifically for a project of this sort.

Nick Inamdar, a co-founder and principal of Magellan Housing, credits the Omni CRA with making room for affordable and workforce housing as the district becomes oversaturated by development.

“If it didn’t happen now, it was probably never going to happen,” Inamdar said.

Still, the majority of these units classify as workforce housing rather than affordable — which, Russell said, has been a point of contention among commissioners. He says they are currently revamping the standards of the ordinance to serve lower-income residents.

Although workforce units subsidize affordable housing and serve middle-class workers with otherwise long commutes, he says, the CRA is looking to find a balance among restrictions that are economical for residents of Coconut Grove, Brickell, Downtown, Allapattah and Overtown alike.

“This idea that communities can have mixed income is the way to go here in terms of Miami’s future,” he said.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development uses the area median income to set a limit to rental rates for each income bracket in each county. According to this year’s report, the maximum rent a landlord in Miami-Dade County can charge a tenant making 50% of area median income for a one-bedroom apartment is $857 a month.

But these projects are still in the planning stages. The rental rates, which are subject to change, will depend on the most recent HUD report available at the time of leasing.

Inamdar said they are hoping to break ground in March 2022, and that construction should last around 18 months.

Old said the CRA’s offices have already received calls from people interested in some of these rental units. But they’re looking to help existing residents, too, he said.

Russell said the agency is trying not to have these large towers creep into the western areas that currently have single-family homes and duplexes.

Still, Old says, some of the older apartment buildings are at risk of demolition due to county zoning changes and extreme wear-and-tear brought upon the units over the years.

“Almost all of the housing that was originally here is gone,” Old said. “Zoning changed to allow buildings with around 24 stories — and so suddenly your one-story house is worth a lot more for the land it’s on.”

In Overtown, a 2018-2019 project named 16 Corner served as a model for dealing with apartments like these in a way that doesn’t involve displacing existing residents– at least not permanently.

The CRA funded the initiative, which included temporarily moving tenants out of old, damaged buildings while they got renovated. Now, residents get to pay their original rent for a practically brand new apartment.

And, Old said, similar projects are currently underway, including renovations for a 12-unit apartment building at 1815 NW 1st Court and a six-unit apartment building just up the block at 1851 NW 1st Court.

Meanwhile, Old said, the CRA is still facing some roadblocks. Although the inclusionary zoning ordinance has a provision for ownership within condo buildings, the agency is trying to figure out how residents in apartment buildings can build equity when they’re busy paying rent.

“It’s a tough situation,” Old said. “How can we help a community own their homes and improve their wealth, rather than having to trade all that in for affordability?”

Samantha Morell loves to write, draw, take pictures, dance and travel. These are interests she aims to incorporate in her career and lifestyle. She is studying journalism and philosophy at FIU because she believes both subjects make her receptive to new information, as she hopes to always be learning.