Wilfredo Lee/AP

Traditionally a tool for politicians, registration databases offer a way into understanding how cities experiencing real estate booms are (and aren’t) changing.

Life is grand at the St. Regis in Bal Harbor just east of Miami. Its residents get a stunning view of the ocean and have access to a spa, a wine cellar, and a staff of butlers. How many registered voters in the 270 units are enjoying all of these amenities? Just 38.

Many of Miami’s new condos have few if any registered voters living inside them. Voter registration databases—traditionally a tool for politicians working to get out the vote—offer a way into understanding how Miami and other cities experiencing real estate booms are (and aren’t) changing.

The standard tools, like the names on the deeds, are hard to analyze because it’s increasingly common for real estate to be held by limited liability corporations (LLCs). The voting records hold real names and show how many people participate in local elections. Of course there are issues—like figuring out if people are registered elsewhere if they split time between multiple homes— but the results are useful nonetheless.

The St. Regis Bal Harbor may be an extreme example but there are others.  Just down the road at the brand new 9501 Collins Avenue only one registered voter has moved in so far. The Chateau Beach Residences just up the road have only eight registered voters. None of them have their name on the deed but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re all renters; one of the apartments, for example, is owned by a family trust set up with the same name as the voter.

Measuring civic involvement with voter registration isn’t a perfect science. There are a number of people registered at P.O. boxes. And not all databases are transparent or consistent. Voter rolls, for instance, sometimes spell the street names or voter names slightly differently.

How are the registration patterns for the glitzy condos different from other residences? Just turn a few blocks west from the waterfront into a neighborhood filled with single-family homes. On the 9500 block of Abbott Avenue you’ll find nine houses with 16 voters. One house alone has a family with five registered voters. There are as many explanations for this difference as there are new condos in Miami, but some of the simplest seem to hold. For one, single family homes aren’t as easy for non-residents to manage. The St. Regis, meanwhile, boasts a concierge and maintenance staff to handle all of the worries, charging $1 per square foot and up for the service.

Other examples lay somewhere in-between. The ICON Bay condominium, a 42-story tower on the Miami side of the bay completed last year, lists apartments for about $500-$700 per square foot. Inside, there are 92 registered voters spread out over 300 units. And some of the older buildings have more voters. 1500 Ocean Drive, a condominium tower built in South Beach in 1998, has 74 registered voters for about 110 units. 

What does this mean for the city? Manny Diaz, who served as mayor of Miami from 2001 to 2009, says there’s no doubt that some of the buyers treated the real estate like a savings bank. “Back in the day… You had people who camped some of their money here as a safe haven. It was driven by a political crisis.”

(Lynne Sladky/AP)

Some of the apartment buildings are built for overseas clients and specifically marketed only abroad. Anyone can buy in, of course, but the builders choose amenities to appeal to residents of certain countries and even cities. But in the last ten years, more banks and hedge funds have opened offices in the city, giving developers more wealthy clients to serve. Now, Diaz says, “the difference is that people are coming because people want to. They want to be a piece of Miami.” He suggests that much of the foreign capital is actually making it easier for people to live in Miami because many of the investors end up renting out the apartments: The investors take on the risk and the renters enjoy the Miami lifestyle.

Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism and an architect with the firm of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, agrees. “Even during the recession people would say, ‘I bet all of the lights will be dark,’ but most of the nights it’s amazing how many of the lights are on.”

As more cranes dot the skyline, downtown keeps showing new signs of life along its sidewalks, too. New restaurants, nightclubs and stores have opened in the area that had previously been dominated by office buildings and surface lots. But there are worries that not enough transient renters will care. “Palm Beach [has] always been a second home community,” said Plater-Zyberk. “People have always been worried that the owners weren’t around to watch for bad developers. The real stake owners weren’t around.”

The developers are already thinking along these lines. Nitin Motwani is the managing partner of the Miami World Center, a 30 acre mixed-use redevelopment downtown that includes a convention center, retail space and residential towers. When he’s not dreaming big, Motwani is organizing voter registration drives for the people who live downtown. “It’s more important that our stakeholders are having our voice heard,” he says. “At the Downtown Development Authority, we’re working with the management and building owners help us help them exercise their civic liberty and duty.”

These registrants are often renters. While it’s impossible to be certain, one can cross correlate the names on the deeds with the names of the voting rolls.

Inside Ten Museum Park, a 50-story building on the waterfront, there are 148 voters registered for the 200 units. But only 41 of the voters have last names that match names on the deed. Many of these are families. In all, only 30 of the units—just 15 percent—have people living in them with names that match the deeds. It’s possible that some of the corporations with inscrutable names like “LOFTY MUSEUM 18 LLC” or “MIAMIPROP FIVE LLC” might be owned by the voters living in the condominiums but many of the deeds have real names on them that don’t match the voters registered in the apartment. This suggests that efforts to register downtown voters is having an effect.  It also shows that the owners and voters are often separate groups.

Peter Zalewski runs CraneSpotters, a firm that follows the marketplace and sells research to developers, investors and owners. He’s also blogged about the marketplace at the website, CondoVultures. “We don’t really have industry down here,” he explains. “The real driver is real estate. It drives agents, title companies, and law firms. South Floridians accept the fact that outsiders are subsidizing the lifestyle that South Floridians want to live.” He’s also pragmatic, saying that all of the investors pay taxes, arguing bluntly, “It funds the school system.”

Perhaps Diaz, the former mayor, says it best. “You can’t stop planes at Miami international and tell people you can’t spend your money to buy a condo in Miami. It’s been exciting because it’s created an urban core that we never had.”

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