Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood might be a world-famous tourist destination, the heart of Cuban culture outside of Cuba itself. But beyond the few blocks of tour buses — and despite abutting one of the nation’s booming downtown areas — it has done surprisingly well at maintaining its ethnic heritage. Almost everyone who lives and works there is either Cuban, Cuban-American or from elsewhere in Latin America, and the neighborhood remains rooted in this culture. Spanish is the first language on the streets, salsa music booms from storefronts, and retail strips are lined with Caribbean cuisine. It’s not unusual to find live chickens running though people’s backyards. The architectural fabric consists largely of Spanish-style center hallway buildings that were constructed after World War I, and has not been interspersed with condos and yoga studios.
The reason this surprises me is that, often when visiting neighborhoods like this that abut wealthy areas, I find that they’ve gentrified beyond their original ethnic heritage. For example in San Francisco, The Mission District–historically the city’s Mexican neighborhood–is a shell of its former self. While it may have some streets dedicated to this culture, there is literally a one-block demarcation from hipster Valencia Street, and the only thing keeping the old-timers around is rent control. San Francisco also has an increasingly-diluted Chinatown and Japantown, and the decline of its black culture is well-documented. Meanwhile Miami’s Little Havana is still Latino, and nearby Overtown remains predominately black. Both neighborhoods have median incomes and home values that are below the citywide average, and the racial makeup for each is over 95% non-Anglo. And yet they are a stone’s-throw from a downtown area where Miami’s globalist elite live, and where median home values hover around $500,000.
What makes Miami’s ability to preserve, culturally-speaking, its close-in neighborhoods all the more surprising is that the city is similar to San Francisco. Both have experienced a flood of new people and capital due, respectively, to their booming financial and tech industries. Both are warm-weather cities that attract tourists, artists, the creative class, and immigrants–including wealthy immigrants. So how has Miami resisted gentrification in these areas? The answer lies in its housing policies — both regionally*, and in particular, downtown.
Rather than acting like they had no clue what to do with all these incoming rich people, Miami officials allowed them a place to go: Brickell. This is a neo-liberal mecca that several decades ago was a low-slung neighborhood. In the 1970s, it began attracting small banks, and starting in the late 1990s, boomed quite rapidly into the “Wall Street of Miami.” It is now home to dozens of banks, and more than just a daytime work center, has evolved into a 24/7 skyscraper neighborhood, with a residential population that doubled from 2000-2010, to 27,000. A 2013 report found that 19 new condos were under construction, and another two dozen were in the planning stages. Along with this has come the fancy restaurants, bars, light rail, and walkable streets. Because of its rapid growth, Brickell is America’s leading example of an overnight skyscraper neighborhood — having added literally dozens of high-rises in just a 2-decade span.
And this neighborhood, it is worth repeating, is directly adjacent to Little Havana and about a mile from Overtown.
San Francisco, meanwhile, doesn’t have a Brickell-like area, and thus not a decisive place for its techies or other wealthy inbound transplants to go. The reason is politics. For one, Brickell’s ostentatious wealth displays conform with Miami’s culture, but would send San Francisco’s class warriors into spasms of outrage. Brickell also wouldn’t get built because San Francisco’s NIMBYs wouldn’t just allow a high-rise neighborhood to go up overnight—or at all. Even when something as harmless as a 12-story condo—8 Washington—is proposed in downtown San Francisco, it faces years of litigation. The stretch of land most eligible to become San Francisco’s Brickell would be the Mission Bay area around the San Francisco Giants’ baseball stadium. But much of this land is government-operated, and all of it is regulated, leading to parking lots and low-scale buildings.
If this area were allowed to explode with high-end condos, it would be a natural destination for San Francisco’s professional class—just as Brickell is for Miami’s. Many of America’s wealthy young professionals, after all, have shown a taste for the type of high-rise, upscale, security-laden condos found in Brickell. But because San Francisco lacks such development, professionals there instead settle for older housing in low-slung neighborhoods like The Mission, Potrero Hill, and the Tenderloin. And this has brought chaos to those neighborhoods, as prices rise and established tenants are evicted.
All this, of course, suggests an ironic aspect of urban housing markets that is misunderstood by most government officials and NIMBYs: “if a city wants to preserve, it must build.” In other words, if a city is being flooded with wealthy people, then allow the market to build to their specifications, namely in under-utilized areas, and watch them concentrate there. That way, they won’t overwhelm the old-school ethnic areas, keeping prices down, and enabling those areas to function as they long have.
*Miami’s regional housing growth also far exceeds San Francisco’s. According to Census figures, the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale-West Palm Beach metro area has, since 2010, permitted over 100,000 new housing units. Over that same period, the San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward metro permitted just under 69,000.
[This article was originally published by Forbes.]
Scott Beyer owns and manages The Market Urbanism Report. He is a roving cross-country journalist who writes regular columns for Forbes, Governing Magazine and HousingOnline.com.
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