Valeria Avirett, the founder of Miami School Advisors, spends her day helping parents secure spots for their children in Miami’s top schools.
Her business took off during the pandemic, but today it has a problem: The schools are all full.
“The struggle is real,” Avirett said. “I love what I do. I love helping people and making a difference, but my job has become incredibly challenging.”
Schools in Miami are straining under the weight of a wave of migration to the city, and the lack of available seats has led some wealthy parents to delay or cancel plans to relocate. Local officials are moving to speed up the school approval process in some parts of the city, but a meager development pipeline of new schools and a challenging market means placing a child is likely to become an even larger issue moving forward.
With no options for their kids, many wealthy parents planning moves from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities are putting real estate purchases on hold, brokers and experts told Bisnow.
“Pre-Covid, the issue of schools never never came up, and I’ve been here for 32 years,” said Craig Studnicky, CEO and president of Related ISG Realty. “There’s always been seats at private schools, there’s always been seats at charter schools. Post-Covid, it’s one of the most frequently discussed issues amongst Realtors today.”
The continued flow of new residents from out of state — nearly 11,000 New Yorkers traded their drivers’ licenses in for Florida licenses between January and March, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety — has transformed Miami from a destination for second homes to a buyer’s home city, shifting the calculus for local officials and the city’s schools.
“This is a paradigm shift,” Studnicky said. “We used to be dominated by second home sales from the Northeast or Latin Americans coming here to buy investment properties. Not so much anymore.”
Residential brokers have become school advisers, working with school operators to identify seats for their clients’ children. But in a market where every school is at capacity, deals are frequently put at risk.
“They all have relationships with the admissions boards of all of these schools. You know, they have to,” Studnicky said of his brokerage staff. “When you buy a house or a condo in a certain neighborhood, then we go on the hunt to find seats in schools. And that’s where we always hit a wall. Not some of the time, all the time.”
In some cases, brokers say, parents are purchasing under-construction properties early to get a Florida address that will allow them to add their children to waiting lists, then stay in their home state while the property is constructed and hoping their children get a seat.
“The people that come here and put deposits down when a property is still dirt, they’re putting it down because they want to make sure that they have that address so they can now apply for the school,” said George Coloney, a Realtor at The Keyes Co. “And the property that’s going up, they might not be able to move in for two years.”
The lack of schools has been exacerbated by the flood of corporate migrations that were supercharged by the pandemic. Employees at hedge fund Citadel, which announced its headquarters would move to South Florida last June, have gained a reputation for trying to force school doors open for their kids. But Citadel is not alone.
At least 200 companies are at some point in the process of moving to Miami-Dade County, whether to relocate offices or to open new ones, and many are from the banking, finance and tech sector including Goldman Sachs, Starwood, Blackstone Group, Millennium Management, Thoma Bravo, Microsoft and Andreessen Horowitz.
“The city’s private schools haven’t been able to keep up with demand from wealthy newcomers, hamstrung by space issues and in some cases regulations that limit headcounts. High-profile schools like Gulliver Prep, Ransom Everglades School, Miami Country Day School, Mater Brickell Academy and Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart are all at capacity,” Avirett said.
It’s not just new arrivals to the city that are stretching school admissions. Brokers and consultants say longtime residents have shifted their perception of the Miami-Dade public school system, where quality varies by location and most of the top schools are magnets that require entering a lottery to gain access.
“Demand for private schools is coming from all ends of the local parent community, too,” Avirett said. “I think the bar has been raised in terms of standards.”
Miami is taking some steps to encourage the development of new schools. On May 25, the city commission passed the first reading of a resolution that aims to streamline some of the school approval process.
The resolution, which was introduced by Mayor Francis Suarez’s office, would allow by-right development of educational facilities in Miami’s urban core. School operators would still have to go through an approval process involving building proposals and traffic impact studies, but the ordinance would open more parcels to school developers by removing some zoning restrictions.
The mayor’s office didn’t respond to Bisnow’s requests for comment.
The ordinance passed unanimously but still requires a second and final reading to be enacted. It has the potential to accelerate a school approval process that often takes several years and to make it easier for operators to identify sites, said Iris Escarra, co-chair of the land use practice at law firm Greenberg Traurig.
“I have heard from folks that are in the school industry that are always looking for different opportunities to be able to open up schools — whether it be charter schools, whether it be private schools — what happens is they’re also competing for the same land as residential projects,” Escarra said.
While the ordinance could have a positive impact on Miami’s school capacity crunch, many experts said more action needs to be taken in both the public and private sector to meet demand.
“Overall, there’s not enough being done. We need to increase the amount of seats in schools by somewhere around 25 to 30%,” Studnicky said. “That’s an awful lot, and who’s doing it? What’s the approval process like? Where do they go? What kind of properties can they buy to tear down to create more schools and campuses? This is a total initiative that needs to be taken very seriously.”
Even once they win local government approval, private school operators face challenges entering the market.
Avenues The World School, a prestigious private school with campuses in New York, Silicon Valley, Brazil and China, won approval earlier this year for an expansive campus in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood. It was planning to open its doors to around 930 Miami students in fall 2025, but construction at the site is on hold while the school operator searches for financing, an Avenues spokesperson said.
“While a substantial investment has already been made to establish Avenues Miami, we have currently paused opening activities until we can identify the necessary financing on acceptable terms,” Tara Powers, the global director of communications at Avenues The World School, told Bisnow in a statement. “We are actively pursuing financing and hope to preserve a fall 2025 opening.”
At least one school has recently broken ground as part of a public-private partnership. Miami-Dade County is working with Related Urban Development Group, a subsidiary of Related Group, to build The Gallery apartment project.
The 24-story development on county-owned land at 945 Southwest Third Ave. will host Brickell World School, a public middle school for around 610 students. The mixed-income housing development will have 450 units, at least 10 of which will go to Miami-Dade County Public Schools employees.
These types of public-private partnerships are seen as crucial for school operators that are struggling to find a site or identify financing and they frequently speed up the approval process and expedite construction at new projects.
“Developing a public-private partnership means the city is on your side for the approval process,” Studnicky said. “We’ve got to get going on that.”
The lack of school seats and the limited development pipeline will continue to be the top issue in the residential real estate market in the coming years, experts said. Getting new schools built will take time and will require attention from not only local governments, but also the developers building multifamily developments in South Florida.
“For everybody to have a harmonious ecosystem of schools, real estate, jobs and employment, the real estate magnates — the big boys — need to invest in those platforms,” Avirett said. “The opportunities are there for charter schools to pop up in places where the community is underserved. That’s what needs to happen.