Florida officials look toward electric to help solve climate woes

From left: Mary Ellen Klas, capital bureau chief for the Miami Herald; Francis Suarez, mayor of the City of Miami; Alice Bravo, director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Transportation and Public Works; and Sen. Manny Diaz Jr. Photo by Jonah Hinebaugh

By Jonah Hinebaugh

University of South Florida – St. Petersburg

The population of Florida is growing. And growing.

Between 2010 and 2018, there was a 13.3 percent increase in the state’s population. Pinellas County saw an increase of 58,476 people while Miami-Dade had an increase of 263,568 people.

With the increase of bodies, and vehicles, comes clogged highways, neighborhoods disrupted by traffic, and an increasing need for solutions to the congestion and environmental impacts.

On Nov. 19, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, state Sen. Manny Diaz Jr. and Alice Bravo, director of Miami-Dade County’s Department of Transportation and Public Works, gathered to discuss the viability of a statewide transportation plan.

The event was led by Mary Ellen Klas, the Miami Herald’s capital bureau chief. It took place during the second annual Florida Priorities Summit at the University of Miami’s Donna Shalala Student Center.

“People [in Miami] are not used to public transportation and it takes a lot,” Diaz said. “A lot of folks, if you tell them that when they take a train or bus and they still got to walk eight blocks to their final destination, they’re looking at you like you’re completely crazy.”

People’s tendency to opt out of public transportation has led to massive increases in vehicle emissions across Florida.

Both the Tampa and Miami metro areas had similar increases in total emissions since 1990. The Tampa metro area had a 55 percent increase and the Miami metro area had a 58 percent increase, according to an article published in the New York Times in early October.

Suarez said investing in electric grids for electric cars and solar energy is a possible solution.

“We need to prioritize solar, and we’re doing that,” he said. “We’re trying to create incentives for people to use solar technologies, which are becoming less and less expensive by the day, and then certainly anything that we can do at the state level or at the county level to promote electric vehicles. I always say that I think we’re one lease away from everyone having an electric vehicle.”

Despite not owning one himself, Suarez said it could be coming within the next three to four years.

“When you look at the dynamics of electric vehicles, if they’re made at an expense level that are added below the average car, there is no incentive not to have one,” he said. “Essentially, it’s an economic argument. It isn’t even an environmental argument at that point, because the maintenance is almost nothing.”

Car charging stations have cropped up across the urban hubs of Florida including the Tampa Bay and Miami-Dade areas.

In December 2018, the city of St. Petersburg partnered with Duke Energy — whose regional headquarter is housed there — to bring its “park and plug” program to the city. The company’s initiative focuses on encouraging clean transportation by installing electric vehicle charging stations.

USF St. Petersburg also partnered with the corporation to bring six chargers to its campus earlier this year.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, there are more than 100 charging stations in Miami.

“A few years ago, an initiative started to have compressed natural gas buses, and we actually just finished a procurement to buy 33 electric buses,” Bravo said. “So we’re going to start exploring that as a possibility.”

The challenge for leaders would then be overcoming the stigma associated with riding public transportation.

“I think that’s an issue in the entire country,” Bravo said. “There’s less of a stigma for rail than for bus. When you take the time to ride the bus, and you see who’s using, it’s the same people pretty much using the rail — people going to work, people that work in the hospital, people that work construction jobs or any kind of job anywhere.”

Bravo followed up by saying a big differentiator between the two is time savings.

“So that’s why with our BERT network we’re looking at ways to get the bus out of the congestion,” she said. “If you’re in the same congested roadway then you’re not you’re not saving time.

“We’re always looking forward to show people ‘Hey, the people riding transit are just like you,’” she said. “When people ask me ‘What are you gonna do about congestion?’ I’m like ‘Well, I’m gonna get you out of your car.’ If you’re stuck in traffic and you look around, pretty much every car around you, there’s a single person in each car so as long as we have that we’re going to have problems.”

The U.S. Census Bureau found that only 1.3 percent of people use public transportation to commute to work in the Tampa metro area. The Miami metro area was only slightly higher at 3.1 percent.

“There’s the fear of the unknown,” Bravo said. “Once people have tried the transit system … the reaction is fairly positive.”

Diaz said the stigma is due to Miami being a relatively new metropolitan area and the societal norm of owning a car.

“It’s hard to break that habit because people see it as losing an element of freedom,” he said. “I mean you’re not going very far you’re stuck in traffic, but they feel like it.”

Diaz thinks the efforts to improve the environmental and community impacts of transport should stay hyperlocal.

“The state’s view on transportation is connectivity throughout the state and interstate,” he said. “I think we have to take our lead more from what’s going on locally, grassroots responsibility and grassroots solutions.”

He referenced development, both the shortcomings and how it can get ahead of original plans, leading to public dollars being thrown into the wind with no results in cities such as Miami.

“I think that having some of these homegrown solutions and trying to figure out what the state’s role is then to support us,” he said. “A lot of times, it’s capacity for federal dollars [and] some of it is actual state dollars that are put into play.

“The state can be supportive and will be supportive, but I think you have to have specific targeted and narrow plans that can help those communities.”

Affordable housing has difficulty gaining traction among most Influencers

Annie Lord, right, writes proposed solutions for affordable housing on a white board during working group meetings of the Florida Priorities Summit at the University of Miami’s Donna Shalala Student Center on Nov. 18. Photo by Jonah Hinebaugh

By Jonah Hinebaugh

University of South Florida – St. Petersburg

A survey conducted by the Miami Herald found affordable housing for working-class Floridians ranked the least important issue among statewide business leaders and policy makers.

The survey asked a group of 50 Florida Influencers assembled by the Herald to rank, in order of importance, five issues: housing, transportation, the environment, education and healthcare.

Thirty percent of the Influencers listed environment as the No. 1 most important issue, followed by education at 23 percent.

According to Miami Herald Senior Editor Dave Wilson, it’s important to keep in mind housing overlaps with different issues such as the environment and economy.

“Sea level rise is a housing threat,” Wilson said. “It’s a housing threat, not only in affluent [areas]. We think of waterfront property as affluent, ritzy property, and in many communities it is, but in many parts of Florida, it is not.

“There are many fishing towns. Some of them got blasted by the hurricane last year in Bay County that may never recover.”

Wilson worked with a group of four Influencers at the University of Miami’s Donna Shalala Student Center on Monday, Nov. 18, to better plan possible solutions to housing problems, which will be presented to the Florida Legislature.

Annie Lord, executive director of Miami Homes for All, served as the chairwoman for the working group. She echoed Wilson’s notion of affordable housing’s ties to multiple issues.

“The market is not creating the housing stock that our residents, and our economy need,” she said.

On Tuesday, Nov. 19, the Influencers presented their conclusions and proposed solutions to the public during panel discussions.

The events are part of the second annual Florida Priorities Summit, which aims to start a dialogue about pressing issues facing Floridians.

As of July 2018, there are approximately 23.1 million people living in Florida.

Of those, nearly 800,000 renters are “cost burdened” — meaning at least 40 percent of their income goes to paying rent — according to the University of Florida’s Schimberg Center for Housing Studies. 

Cost-burdened renters account for 30 percent of the rental market in Miami-Dade County, with Pinellas County only two percentage points behind.

“When you think about housing, it’s not just affordability at two levels — low income housing, housing for everybody, or affordable housing, for people who are above [or] well above the poverty line,” Wilson said. 

“But our teachers, nurses or other healthcare professionals, firefighters, police officers, government workers … either there isn’t sufficient housing for them, or there isn’t sufficient housing for them that they can afford.”

Kerry-Ann Royes, left, and Wifredo Ferrer were among the 50 Influencers who took park in the second annual Florida Priorities Summit. Both Royes and Ferrer were part of the working group focused on affordable housing. Photo by Jonah Hinebaugh

In addition to Lord, the affordable housing group was made up of Kerry-Ann Royes, president and CEO of YWCA Miami; Rev. David Swanson, pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Orlando; and Wifredo Ferrer, executive partner at Holland & Knight.

The groups main solutions included utilizing 100 percent funds from the William F. Sadowski Affordable Housing Act. The housing act, adopted in 1992, created two trust funds meant to support affordable housing at the local and state levels through taxes on real estate transactions.

The funds are constantly swept to the general operating budget or for hurricane relief. Between 2008 and 2017, only $578.5 million of the $1.9 billion actually went to housing, according to the Miami Herald.

“What tends to happen is they make big proclamations about this year we’re not going to [take funds out],” Swanson said. “Then they get down to the end and try to make things balance and, in my opinion, I think they think it’s easier to go ‘We’ll just go [take funds] here and make it all happen instead of having to actually do more work.’”

The group also came up with a list of “creative incentives” to help stimulate the market such as changing the narrative of affordable housing to “make it sexy,” amending an upcoming Florida House housing bill and putting an emphasis on public-private partnerships.

“We’ve pursued some affordable housing in the past,” Royes said. “And what we’ve heard is the appetite is changing in the neighborhoods. There are neighborhoods that are like, ‘No more. We get what you’re trying to do, but not in our neighborhood.’ 

“It’s changing that language, I think and helping neighborhoods to understand who we’re serving, why we’re serving them and making it not just housing but mixed use developments.”

The difficulties of providing affordable housing only grew earlier this year when the state Senate passed House Bill 7103.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, the bill would require incentives like bonuses or waived fees to offset any additional developer costs if a developer sets aside a certain percentage of units for residents with low incomes.

The bill also imposes a 30-day time limit for counties or municipalities to review an application for a development permit.

“Fifty-eight percent of the Influencers said that that bill was a legislative overreach,” Lord said. “It was very limiting to local government where you have a lot of solutions being driven.”

“Affordable housing is a localized issue, they said, and decisions need to be
made by governments close to the communities,” Lord wrote in the housing working group report.

The Influencer group suggested amending the bill to encourage negotiations with cities and counties for appropriate time limits for permits. The group also recommended striking language requiring affordability incentives to “fully offset” the cost of affordability, according to Lord’s report.

Swanson thought partnerships with private organizations could help provide more than monetary aid.

“I feel like there’s a moral imperative for how communities are called to take care of their citizens,” he said. “We are not playing into it well. We should create more public, private, faith community collaboration that generates funding because of an inherent generosity that exists within any given community.

“I think we all acknowledge that taxes don’t go far enough to do everything that needs to be done on any given community,” Swanson said. 

“In the faith community, you’ve got a ready-made audience in Orange County and 400,000 people who would be willing to step in and help serve in these gaps, but we’re not doing anything to mobilize them to create the necessary pressure for legislators to do the right thing. Instead of doing things that serve themselves, what are we doing to serve people who are really in need?”