Cafecito Chat with Mayor Francis X. Suarez

Florida Is The Future
February 2022


How is Miami changing as it welcomes new corporate arrivals from diverse economic sectors? What will Miami’s physical landscape look like in the coming years? Javier Aviñó, Bilzin Sumberg's Practice Group Leader for Land Development & Government Relations, and City of Miami Mayor Francis X. Suarez sit down for a #CafecitoChat to discuss how Miami is changing and what it means for local real estate as they offer insightful observations on how recent development trends are changing the lay of the land. For more thought-provoking interviews on Florida’s rapid growth, please visit Florida Is The Future.


AVIÑÓ: Mayor, thank you so much for having me here and to be able to chat today. First and foremost, congratulations, president of the US mayors, US conference of mayors, a huge accomplishment for you individually and for the city. So congratulations and again, thank you.

SUAREZ: I feel very blessed that the residents of the city have given me a second chance to be their mayor, a second term. And because of that, the mayor of America has also designated me as the president of their organization to this conference over here. So it's just a really unique and special opportunity to take what we've learned here in Miami and try to scale it nationally.

AVIÑÓ: You have not been shy about labeling yourself as Miami's chief marketing officer. You've been very, very focused on the migration that's happening to South Florida and encouraging the tech industry, in particular, you know, to make Miami home and to, you know, come and relocate to Miami in a significant fashion. So, why Miami? 

SUAREZ: Well, there's many reasons, and many reasons why everyone is choosing Miami now. I think that for me, I've been 12 years in public service. I spent a lot of time and energy in my 12 years focusing on affordable housing, focusing on transportation, and a variety of other things that help people live in dignity, you know, who may need help, some level of assistance from the government. 

I spent less time, and governments often spend less time, focusing on what I call the income side of the equation, trying to help create more high paying jobs, trying to help develop the residents of their city, of their community, so that maybe they don't need an affordable house, you know, affordable housing, maybe they can afford something that's above those ranges. So that, you know, it sort of - that was part of it. I think the other part of it was taking advantage of an opportunity in time. And when you see a tsunami of opportunity coming, you've got two choices. You can run for cover, 

AVIÑÓ: Or get on.

SUAREZ: Or you can get your surfboard out. So I got my surfboard out. I felt like there was a unique set of things happening in the country that were conspiring to give Miami a leg up and an opportunity, and because of that, you know, we've succeeded in so many different ways, you know, creating tech jobs, creating a tremendous migration of assets under management companies to the city, which of course creates opportunity for my residents.

AVIÑÓ: There are certain incentives that exist for Affordable housing- capital “A” affordable housing as I call it as opposed to lowercase affordable housing. And so, you know, what are your thoughts on continuing to sort of evaluate legislative sort of incentives for continued development opportunities?

SUAREZ: It's a never ending process, right? When I first got elected in 2009, Miami 21 was just coming on the books and it didn't have an affordable housing section. So I helped create a section of Miami 21 that was dedicated specifically for affordable housing, and that was reverse engineering the tax credit system in Tallahassee, which got us, I think, 1500 units in one calendar year.

It was so successful, that Tallahassee had to reverse engineer, our reverse engineering. We've always been innovating. We've always tried to think outside  of the box. Sometimes people forget how much you've done in these areas. You know, people often ask me, how do you have such a low homicide rate? We reduced homicide by 22% last year. 

In part it's because we've created high quality affordable housing in places like Overtown, which used to be a food desert. It didn't have a supermarket, and we created a supermarket there by essentially picking up the costs of interior build-outs for a supermarket chain that, maybe, would not have otherwise, you know, located there.
So we've done a variety of very unique and innovative things that have created tremendous amount of prosperity and also had ancillary benefits, like reducing the homicide rate in our city.

AVIÑÓ: What do you think about Miami's sort of unique transportation situation? Right. I mean, we've got an elevated Metro rail platform, we've got an integrated rapid transit system, we're seeing a fair amount of development and sort of key transit nodes. So what are your thoughts on, on sort of finding that balance-right-finding that equilibrium? 

SUAREZ: Yeah, so I mean this is something I'm extremely passionate about, I've been working on for 12 years. Helped bring on the free trolley system to Miami, which carries tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people, on an annual basis, if not millions of people on an annual basis, and it's free to the public and it's comprehensive throughout the city. 

Helped usher in the scooter program, which is a private sector innovation that is a sort of last mile innovator. I've learned that in the absence of government action, the private sector will innovate a solution around it, and oftentimes do it in a way that is beneficial to the private sector.

So, on development, you know, we were just recently ranked, I remember, one of the best 15 minute walkable cities in the country. Why? In part because, you know, our zoning code allows for a sort of citiy within cities, right? So all our neighborhoods have become like little cities. It's very rare that somebody has to go across city to get somewhere. They can do everything within their 15 minute zone and I think that reduces traffic congestion significantly. And then,  I would say, lastly, we're going to be looking at innovative things that, you know me, I'm someone who always likes to push the envelope, and urban air mobility is something that we're having conversations with all the urban air mobility companies. Our value proposition is look, if it works in Miami, we can scale it nationally and I'll be your champion nationally. 

The Boring Company, I've had extensive conversations with The Boring Company about the possibility of boring underneath our city and having a transit system there. So those are ongoing conversations that I think we have to continue as a community to look at, because as we grow, we may have some infrastructure challenges that we have to deal with.

AVIÑÓ: What advice would you give to an owner developer - who's from Chicago, from New York, from the west coast - what are some of the things they should think about when they're looking at opportunities here in Miami? 

SUAREZ: I think they should know, number one, that there is a 10X multiple of growth in our zoning code, which is a form-based zoning code, which means that the form for building something is already built and it's very easy to just go in and get a permit. You don't have to get a change in some circumstances. So the difference between what's built and what can be built, in terms of density, is 10:1. And I think most big cities in America can't say that. We have I think 37,000 units in the pipeline, according to our analysis, so building permits that are in the pipeline. So, there's a ton of growth that's coming, which I think will hopefully create the supply necessary to reduce prices and make Miami continue to be the affordable place that it is vis-à-vis New York and a place like San Francisco.

I think Miami, I was talking to somebody the other day and they were saying, this is a Miami miracle story, and I think people should imagine what a city that has low homeless, low homicides, low taxes, great weather, is number one in the nation in tech job growth, number one in tech job migration, and is growing tremendously in terms of venture capital, what that city looks like. Imagine a city like that, that cares about public spaces, cares about sports and culture. And that's what we're going to focus on. Just continue to create what we feel is a city that most values the most precious commodity that we all have, which is our time. 

AVIÑÓ: With the pandemic, we saw a lot of remote working. And that impacted us in a really meaningful way with lots of folks coming down that didn't relocate their jobs, they just were working remotely. Do you think that trend will sort of continue? 

SUAREZ: I actually think what's going to happen going forward is that companies will be born here and capitalize her, because I think this is going to be the epicenter of capital world. And then what'll happen is jobs are going to be created throughout the country, from here. So you'll have a company that's capitalized here, created here, may have some of its executive team here, but the actual, a lot of their jobs will be spread out across the country for people that can do them remotely and that's going to be a phenomenon that is new and that is going to affect not only urban America, but rural America, and will bring a lot of prosperity to this country.

AVIÑÓ: How can the private development community partner with the city and really make things happen in a completely different way?

SUAREZ: You know, we've had a lot of successful public and private partnerships, particularly in affordable housing, and we're going to look for opportunities like that, whether it's in transportation, whether it's in affordable housing, whether it's in culture, right? We're not in the business, oftentimes, of operating nor do I necessarily want to be in the business of operating. 

We're looking at a charter school initiative right now, where we're going to go out to the operators of the private sector and say, hey, this is what you do, this is what you're good at. We can give you some of the assets necessary to get you going and we can give you some direction on what we want to see as a final product, but we're not going to tell you how to do it. You're the ones that tell us how you're going to do it. 

That's the true nature of public private partnership. It's understanding your core competencies as a government, being humble enough to know to admit what you may not be good at, and what the private sector may be phenomenal at, and then giving them a certain amount of assets that could be the tipping point between being able to do something and not being able to do it.

AVIÑÓ: When we think about the Miami of 10 years from now, what do you really sort of envision? 

SUAREZ: Wow. My dream is to imagine a city where there is no homeless. We've just put out a zero functional zero plan to eliminate homelessness in our city. My dream is to have a city where every child born in the city has an opportunity to be successful through educational opportunities into a high paying job, and my dream is to have a city that is the cultural Mecca and sports Mecca of the world and the most desirable place to live, which turns out to be the epicenter of capital.

AVIÑÓ: So you famously put up a billboard that said, “How can I help?” You've always had an open door policy. What else can we do as a development community to help you move forward with some of your initiatives? 

SUAREZ: Yeah, you know, my theory of government is, government is a facilitator or a non disruptor. You know, often times government disrupts in a negative way, not in a positive way, because there is such thing as positive disruption as well. I think for me, help us do our job better. You know, help us find ways to innovate. Help us to find ways to - we were talking off air about dealing with some of our, what I would call deal flow or pipeline issues, which happens when you're growing at the rate that we're growing. 

Help us to tell your story. We're in the storytelling business. We want to be able to tell the story of what Miami is becoming. And then I would say, think of ways to give back. I think a lot of companies that I interact with have a conscience, you know, they want to be part of the social fabric, not just a moneymaking venture, they want to actually be part of the community.

I think there's a lot of great entities, nonprofits, initiatives that could use funding, that could use help, to try to give people a fair opportunity to be successful. 

AVIÑÓ: Well Mayor, I can't thank you enough for your time today. 

SUAREZ: Thanks Javi.

AVIÑÓ: This is, you know, always a pleasure talking to my friend and the Mayor.

SUAREZ: Good to see you buddy.

AVIÑÓ: I appreciate it. 

SUAREZ: Thank you for inviting me. 

AVIÑÓ: Thank you.

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