This Real Estate Attorney Will Likely Be Miami's Next Mayor
Because he did not draw any high-powered opponents by the September deadline, Francis Suarez, a real estate attorney and current city commissioner who lives in Coral Gate, will almost certainly be the next mayor of Miami following the upcoming Nov. 7 election.
Still, he will be campaigning until Election Day.
“You can never take anything for granted, and this is a really wacky town," Suarez, 40, told Bisnow in a telephone interview.
Suarez was raised in Miami and is the son of former Miami mayor and current Miami-Dade County Commissioner Xavier Suarez. After graduating from Florida International University and law school at the University of Florida, the younger Suarez worked at Haley Sinagra, Paul and Toland P.A., Alvarez Barbara and then, Gray Robinson. Last month, he moved to Carlton Fields, where his sister is a partner.
Suarez, who does mostly transactional work, said the firm gives him a national platform, and he appreciated that it treated his sister well as she raised four children.
Suarez was elected a Miami city commissioner in 2009. He ran for mayor in 2013, thinking he could strike a chord with Miami's growing young professional class. But an inexperienced cousin working for his campaign hired attractive 20-somethings for a get-out-the-vote effort at a Cinco de Mayo event.
After a few vodka tonics, they filled out forms requesting absentee ballots for relatives, and even made up voter names, which is illegal. The cousin and one campaign worker faced misdemeanor charges. Suarez resigned.
Four years later, Suarez is much better prepared – so much so that he had only three qualifying challengers, two of whom raised no money at all and one who raised $102.50. Suarez has raised more than $3M.
“I like to think — maybe I'm biased — but it's in part because of the work I have done to be accessible and transparent,” Suarez said.
Instead of getting on the ballot by paying a fee, he opted to qualify by gathering signatures, which had not been done in the Miami mayoral race in 50 years. He said he is present and comfortable in every neighborhood in the city.
“I collected 2,000 resident petitions and petitioned to get onto the ballot — something that grass-roots campaigns usually do,” Suarez said. “I had seen my father be mayor for eight years, and learned how important is is not to lose sight of who your bosses are. Your bosses are the citizens.”
Scores of Suarez's campaign donations have come from developers and real estate professionals.
“The tax base is real estate value-driven, and it's grown 37% over three years,” Suarez said, rattling off the specific stats: 14%, 12% and 11%, respectively, in each year. “The city is slowing down a little bit. Nevertheless, it's double-digit growth, so that is on one hand exciting people believe in the city.”
However, while “prosperity trickles down,” he said, it also creates challenges for affordable housing. Miami is famously unaffordable for average workers – 82% of households cannot afford to own, and 60% are rent-burdened.
That said, Suarez disagrees with developers who say affordable units are just not feasible for downtown. At a Bisnow event last month, some panelists said that Miami is shaping up to look like New York or San Francisco, where supply and demand dictates that units in desirable locations simply will never be offered cheaply.
“I think we've demonstrated an ability to do it,” Suarez said, citing $60M that the City Commission approved early in his tenure, in conjunction with the CRA, for affordable housing. He is a proponent of using the tax credit system to entice development.
The cost of land can be prohibitive, but even so, he said, several developers have expressed interest in using downtown infill sites to create workforce housing units.
Suarez acknowledged that transit is a perpetual problem, but said he is bullish on fixing it.
"With new leadership, new energy, we can tackle some of these problems that have been persistent," he said. "I wouldn't be doing this if wasn't excited about it ... There's a saying: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
He cited the city's efforts so far: negotiating to bring Tri-rail downtown, a free trolley program and the SMART Plan, which is supposed to improve rapid-transit corridors.
The Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization is funding the framework for north and south lines of our mass transit system, he said, imagining the day people will be able to take the Metrorail down to Florida City and up to the Broward County line, using railroad corridors to go northeast, and with western connections to FIU, Sweetwater and Doral.
“We are within the realm to achieve it,” he said.
Suarez sees climate change as a problem, but not an unbeatable one.
“We have to make sure infrastructure is resilient, that if we have flooding, storm surge, we can deal with that," he said. "That has to be factored into new construction and building. The city has to do a better job understanding climatic events and how to deal with them. Water is not necessarily our enemy. It can be an asset.”
He said that Miami could learn from Miami Beach's efforts to raise roads and install pumps, and noted that the Nov. 7 ballot also asks voters to approve a $400M bond for public works projects.
Suarez opposes the bond, but said $200M of the money can be used to deal with climate change mitigation.
“We are stewards of this planet, and the things we do have to be done conscientiously,” Suarez said. “I don't think that's bad business — that's good business.”
Suarez is optimistic that technology, like solar panels and battery storage for solar energy, will advance to help solve some of our modern conundrums. Asked if he could see Miami implementing stronger rules for builders, like South Miami's requirement for solar panels on new construction, he said, “Absolutely, 100%.”
Yet Suarez acknowledged that his biggest challenge would be preparing for a natural disaster or terrorist incident, both on the forefront of his mind after Hurricane Irma and the Las Vegas shooting.
“I would be derelict in my duty as mayor if I don't change things or push the envelope with what we need to do to be prepared,” Suarez said. “What happens when we get a direct hit from a Category 5 like Andrew? We need to assess and be honest with ourselves about our level of preparedness. Las Vegas highlights the need, particularly when there's a mass aggregation of people.”
Hopefully such tragedies never comes to pass, and he can focus on his day job, which now involves multistate clients, strip malls and commercial realty.
“I want to continue to work on land acquisition deals or development deals,” he said.