Miami’s plan to build tiny homes on Biscayne Bay island for homeless put on hold

·5 min read

Miami’s proposal to place up to 100 tiny homes on Virginia Key for people experiencing homelessness, which led to opposition from the county and a weekend protest, will be put on hold for now.

Mayor Francis Suarez and Commissioner Joe Carollo, who sponsored the concept, announced Monday afternoon that the city plans to hold off on pursuing a “transition zone” on the island’s northeastern shore for at least 6 months.

Suarez and Carollo agreed to ask the City Commission to pause the effort while the city works with Miami-Dade County officials on three key issues. They said the city wants the county to help make more shelter beds available, identify alternative sites for temporary housing facilities and stop releasing homeless people from jail within Miami city limits.

“We feel that it’s an unfair burden for the city to have to take care of all the homeless without more help from Miami-Dade County,” Suarez told reporters.

The announcement about putting the Virginia Key plan on hold comes after an outcry from people across the community, criticism from Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava and County Commissioner Raquel Regalado and opposition from several groups that bike, hike and paddle around Virginia Key. The chairman of the agency that manages the historic Black beach park on Virginia Key, a formerly segregated beach, also objected to the tiny homes plan.

Carollo said he was willing to sponsor a temporary pause on the Virginia Key plan since county officials appear to be willing to work with the city on the problem. He said the city has been “forced” to consider options such as the Virginia Key plan because Miami-Dade County, along with its Homeless Trust, has not done enough to address homelessness.

“We don’t want to be in the business of doing tiny homes, getting involved with the homeless,” Carollo said. “But if the county doesn’t want to live up to the responsibility, then we have no choice to move on this.”

The mayor and Carollo need City Commission approval to formally pause the Virginia Key plan, and that is expected to pass easily with support from Carollo and Chairwoman Christine King, two of the three commissioners who voted in favor of the tiny homes proposal. That vote is expected in September.

The mayor had not made any public statements on the plan since it passed the City Commission on July 28. He has spoken in the past about wanting to dramatically reduce homelessness in Miami, which involved steering federal COVID relief aid toward a slew of social services agencies and shelters.

On Monday, Suarez said his plan to reduce homelessness to “functional zero,” first introduced in January, has not been fully implemented. He said multiple agreements to send federal aid to local agencies are pending, and he wants to give some time to see the impact of the funding boost. He said the money will pay for more short-term and long-term shelter beds and mental health and drug addiction programs.

“As with all projects, implementation of such an audacious plan like functional zero takes tremendous coordination, and in many respects, there are factors that are out of our control,” the mayor said.

Maxie Espinosa, City of Miami outreach referral specialist, tries to persuade a homeless person in downtown Miami to be taken to shelter to stay ahead of the chilly weekend on Friday, Jan. 28, 2022.
Maxie Espinosa, City of Miami outreach referral specialist, tries to persuade a homeless person in downtown Miami to be taken to shelter to stay ahead of the chilly weekend on Friday, Jan. 28, 2022.

READ MORE: Miami OKs funding to end homelessness, even while city gets aggressive with homeless

Carollo chastised county officials for not doing more sooner, shamed opponents of the plan by calling them “elitists” who simply didn’t want to see homeless people near them, and accused critics of pulling “the race card” by objecting to the Virginia Key plan because it would be near the historic Black beach on the island, a formerly segregated beach.

“What does this have to do with the historical Black beach?” Carollo said, responding to a question at the press conference. “That’s a mile and a half away, the place that we’re looking at. It’s got nothing to do with the historical Black beach, and those that are using that as the final straw to throw at us, they should be ashamed of themselves.”

Suarez emphasized that his plan to fund other organizations could go a long way toward reducing the number of people living on the streets. In particular, he said he was hopeful about the potential impact of the Miami Center for Mental Health and Recovery, a facility that is slated to received $750,000 from the city. Championed by mental health advocate Judge Steve Leifman, the facility could open by the end of the year and is expected to have the capacity to house up to 200 people dealing with mental health issues and substance abuse.

Ron Book, chairman of the Homeless Trust, said a tiny homes proposal with a “housing-first” strategy to create permanent housing units for people living on the street is in line with the Trust’s goals and worth further discussion.

“We are hopeful after that dialogue, including conversations with Commissioner Christine King, that we will get to a better solution as a result of the proposal,” he said.

Days after releasing a memo listing concerns with the Virginia Key plan, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava’s office said in a statement on Monday that the county is committed to working with the city.

“We are encouraged that the City is taking time to further evaluate the program, and we look forward to continuing to collaborate on innovative solutions to homelessness,” said Loren Parra, Levine Cava’s director of communications.

A cyclist makes his way past a plot of land between the Virginia Key Outdoor Center and the mountain bike course at North Point, adjacent to the sewage treatment plant in Virginia Key on July 28, 2022. Miami has been studying the possibility of taking people experiencing homelessness off the streets and moving them to a city-sponsored encampment on this site in Virginia Key.
A cyclist makes his way past a plot of land between the Virginia Key Outdoor Center and the mountain bike course at North Point, adjacent to the sewage treatment plant in Virginia Key on July 28, 2022. Miami has been studying the possibility of taking people experiencing homelessness off the streets and moving them to a city-sponsored encampment on this site in Virginia Key.