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Affordable housing crisis puts South Florida families at risk of dislocation

Stephenie Collie in her Liberty City apartment
Daniel Rivero
Stephenie Collie sits in her Liberty City efficiency for which she pays $900 a month. To renew her lease, she will have to pay $1,100 for the unit.

Over the last year, rental rates in South Florida have exploded faster than anywhere else in the nation. Now, the affordable housing crisis is squeezing families like never before.

Mere feet away from her front door, cars zip past the shoebox efficiency Stephenie Collie has been renting for $900 a month in Miami’s Liberty City. In a few months, she might need to fork out a total of $1,100 for the approximately 250 square foot space she shares with her two children.

That comes out to a 22 percent rent hike.

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A playpen for her children takes up the bulk of the space inside the efficiency, where each crevice is crammed with makeshift storage. Collie shares a bed with her eldest daughter, and also uses the bed as a workspace and dining area.

“I keep all their toys in bags under here and I will pull things out for them to play with. I don’t let them play with all their toys at once because it will take up the whole room,” said Collie, while giving a tour of the room.

The prospect of having to fork out an additional $200 a month for the small space in one of Miami’s most crime-stricken areas is indicative of an eye-popping explosion in property values and rental costs that is leaving many locals scrambling for affordable places to live.

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted a surge of newcomers to South Florida, where they chase lax COVID-19 guidelines, low taxes, sunshine, a growing tech scene and options to work remotely. As the newcomers arrive, often with higher wages than locals, it has prompted a double-edged sword of an insufficient housing supply and people willing to pay more for what they can find.

This has led to an explosion of rental prices unlike those seen anywhere else in the nation.

In the last year alone, rents increased about 36 percent in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, according to real estate website Redfin. The three South Florida cities are the top three for rent hikes in the nation.

For Collie, a single Black mother who currently works at a temp agency, the hikes have her reaching the absolute limits of her finances.

She recalled a conversation with her landlord about why her rental costs are going up.

“She was like ‘You’re in a hot spot.’ And I’m like ‘What’s the hot spot?’ And she’s like, ‘Well I’m about eight minutes away from Wynwood and I’m about 10 to 15 minutes away from the airport, so it’s a hot spot for people to live for people who travel for things like that and that’s why it has to go up,” she said.

Ever since getting the news of the rent hike, Collie has searched the area for a better deal for the money, but no good deals have surfaced. The new, higher lease would start in May.

“If I don’t find a place by like March or April I will just have to renew because I can’t just say like, no, I’m not gonna stay here. I have to have a place for my kids,” she said. “I would probably just stay here and endure it another year.”

Her two toddlers, Summer and Juliana, both have autism and receive therapy in the area, making her reluctant to pick up and leave to a potentially more affordable area of the state.

“To me it feels kind of selfish because I would have to uproot them,” she said. “And moving is expensive. So I can’t just pick up and go, because it’s so hard to save anything.”

In Hialeah: 'Here we are and here we will stay'

On a recent evening, dozens of tenants of a building in Hialeah gathered to protest what they said was an unjust rental hike. The 20-unit property was newly purchased by a company for $4.1 million and some residents faced immediate rent increases from $1,000 to $1,650 a month.

They held signs and chanted “Aqui estamos, de aqui no nos vamos,” or “Here we are and here we will stay.” The tenants and a few worried neighbors from surrounding buildings called for the company, Eco Stone Group, to meet with residents to reach some kind of a deal that will bring the monthly rent increase down and allow residents to keep their homes.

Tenants of a 20-unit building in Hialeah protest what they say is an unjust rent increase. If they don't agree to the increase by the end of the month, tenants will have to leave the building.
Daniel Rivero
Tenants of a 20-unit building in Hialeah protest what they say is an unjust rent increase. If they don't agree to the increase by the end of the month, tenants will have to leave the building.

“We don’t have anywhere else to go. Our option would be to move in with my aunt for the meantime to see if we can find something. But realistically it’s basically like being houseless,” said Rachel Rubí, a 24-year-old resident who has lived her entire life in the building with her mother, a Nicaragua native.

Rubí helped organize her neighbors for the protest with help from the Miami Worker's Center, an advocacy group for low-income communities.

"People, what they earn here is not enough to pay $1,650, which is the very unfair part," she said.

The dramatic rent increases reaching into the heart of Miami-Dade’s working class community has come as a shock to residents, even if the writing has been on the wall for some time as the city has opened its arms to developers. The financial website WalletHub declared Hialeah as one of the least affordable rental markets in the nation as early as 2018, based on the rental rates and median income level.

Some residents are calling for solutions from local governments to combat what they see as an eventual displacement.

“There needs to be a cap on rents, depending on the area,” said Denio Abel Sierra, a Cuba-born truck driver who lives in the building. “Here we can’t pay the same that they pay in Miami Beach or Doral or Coconut Grove. We’re in Hialeah, and it’s working people that live here.”

State law prohibits local governments from passing rent control ordinances, but some cities are looking to see if they can get around it. Both Tampa and neighboring St. Petersburg, which are seeing similarly rising rents, are exploring whether they can declare a housing emergency to temporarily put a cap on rental hikes, with some local lawmakers describing the increases as price “gouging.”

In South Florida, no local government has publicly started to explore a similar route.

The Miami-based company that purchased the Hialeah building, Eco Stone Group, has not responded to requests for comment or to calls by residents for a dialogue.

Tenants have until the end of the month to either pay the new rates or to leave the property.

“It is inhumane,” said Ana Sierra, an 85-year old Cuba-born resident of the building who faces potential eviction with her grandson. Together, they simply cannot afford the new rate, she said, and they don’t know where they could afford to live if forced to leave.

“I would hope that police would not enforce it if they tell us we have to leave,” said Sierra.

People with the least are impacted the most

About 122,000 renter households in Miami-Dade County that earn about $26,000 or under cannot access affordable housing, according to University of Florida data. For households earning between $65,000 and $72,000, only an estimated 2,500 cannot access affordable housing.

Even those numbers capture the state of the housing crisis in 2019, before the pandemic, before wealthy new arrivals to South Florida drove up rental rates. The trajectory does not look promising.

“I think we’re gonna see a lot more kids and a lot more elders become homeless. I think you’re going to see quality of life deteriorate,” said Annie Lord, the executive director of Miami Homes For All, an advocacy group that aims to eliminate homelessness in Miami-Dade.

“I don’t know if there’s going to be an instant tipping point or if there will be some kind of gradual impact,” she said. “If we do nothing I can’t see that we avoid that. There’s no way to avoid that.”

Lord points to this disparity of impact on the poorest of residents and says local governments and the state government need to put significantly more funding into building new homes for people on the lowest end of the economic ladder.

That’s because a bulk of public housing dollars and policies go towards developing so-called “workforce housing” for professionals such as teachers and firefighters, and not the poorest in the community. But the poorest are the ones most impacted.

“That’s tough to do — I get it — for politicians. You’re gonna pass a bond and that means you’re gonna increase debt service and that means you have to ask taxpayers to contribute a few pennies more,” she said.

South Florida is primarily a service economy, and if service industry workers can’t afford to live here, Lord fears it’s going to cause major problems for the whole region, specifically in Miami-Dade.

“Thirty percent of the county earns $35,000 or less. Household, not individual,” she said, adding that those households are "housing cost burdened," meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. “This is a significant part of our workforce, and how does that economy get driven?”

If rental costs continue to climb, Palm Beach-based real estate attorney Michael Gelfand predicted a widespread impact on working class South Florida residents.

“People who are hard-working cannot afford to live in the communities where they work, and that means some of them are going to face incredibly long commutes just to get to work. Because they can’t afford to live here,” he said. “Dade County is going to have a ‘Manhattanization’ if you would. In some ways it’s already happening.”

Even with vouchers, a struggle

Keisha Guyton lived and worked in Broward County until last May. That’s when the duplex she was living in was sold and the new owner moved into her side. That unexpectedly pushed her back onto the rental market, where she looked for a three-bedroom apartment.

“I started off in Broward, but every time I go to a place even if I thought maybe ‘this is a regular neighborhood, this ain’t gonna be that much,’ and the place was $2,500. I went to places that was $3,500,” she said.

Unable to find a place, Guyton moved back in with her parents in Miami Gardens, this time with her two adult children in tow. Guyton sleeps in her old bedroom and her two children on couches in the living room.

If her parents were not helpful and understanding of the situation, Guyton said they would “probably be in a shelter somewhere.” Thankful as she is, circumstances are far from ideal.

“I don’t think my daughter is dealing with it well. She don’t seem like she’s very happy,” said Guyton. “And then for me as a parent, you wanna make sure you have a roof over your child’s head, and so it doesn’t make me feel in a good place either.”

Guyton receives Section 8 vouchers from the federal government, which she transferred from Broward to Miami-Dade. But even with that subsidy — which is guaranteed rent payment for a potential landlord — she has trouble finding a place to live.

She showed WLRN documentation from an apartment community that declined to rent to her for having an insufficient “income-to-rental ratio.” They demanded that she generate an income of three times the rent amount in order to rent an apartment, a requirement she could not meet after losing her job last year.

That meant that Guyton lost the non-refundable $100 application fee she put down to be considered for the apartment. Some apartments ask for application fees to be submitted per adult, to perform different background checks, making it severely risky to apply in the first place for a three-adult household, with so little income coming in.

“That’s not gonna come back if they say I can’t get it,” she said.

Guyton doesn’t want to overstay her welcome with her parents and has had such little luck finding a place in South Florida that she foresees tough choices ahead.

“ I’m starting to see that if I can’t get any help, I may have to move up north where it’s cheaper,” she said. “Probably like Pompano, Palm Bay, Cocoa — I may have to take my voucher and see if I can transfer it up north.”

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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