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Hialeah residents with rising rents get some help from the city — for now

A woman holds a sign at a protest that reads Stop the abusive rent increase. We are still in a pandemic.
Daniel Rivero
/
WLRN
Maria Rubí, shown protesting rent hikes in January, 2022, is receiving rental assistance from the city but says the property manager is applying the money to fees, not the increase in rent.

The city of Hialeah has begun to offer rental assistance for residents seeing sharp increases in their rental rates, using federal coronavirus dollars identified by the city.

The working-class city – along with the whole region – has seen rents sharply spike over the last several months.

A Hialeah building that WLRN has reported on saw a 65% rate increase virtually overnight for some tenants, which Mayor Esteban Bovo Jr. said led the city to create the program. A total of eight tenants in that 20-unit building have already started to receive assistance.

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“I understand the capitalist system, I support the capitalist system. But we have to be conscious that over the last two years it has been hard for all of us, and that it’s not the time to basically steamroll families,” Bovo said at a press conference, in Spanish. “Because where are they going to go? It is a serious crisis.”

“Any one of us that has to experience a $600 increase in rent, that would be devastating. If my mortgage company said they’re gonna increase me $600, I’d be screaming at the top of my lungs,” he said.

The new property owners of that building, the Eco Stone Group, have not responded to media inquiries or affected tenants for more than a month. Bovo said the company has not responded to the city government either.

The mayor was unable to say exactly how much money overall could be made available for affected tenants who want to receive government assistance in paying rising rents.

He suggested any Hialeah residents interested in receiving the assistance call (305) 863-2970 to see if they qualify.

Hialeah mayor Esteban Bovo Jr. stands at a lectern to talk about the city's new rental assistance program.
Daniel Rivero
/
WLRN
Hialeah Mayor Esteban Bovo Jr. talks about the city's new rental assistance program while tenant Maria Rubí, center, looks on.

Bovo was elected as a staunchly conservative, small-government mayor, and acknowledged that the government subsidizing rent hikes runs risks. One risk is that the move could possibly backfire and keep rental rates artificially high as tax dollars flow to landlords, incentivizing further rent hikes.

“It’s a slippery slope when government starts wading into these waters. It could really skew this and not for the good, and I understand that,” he said.

But the mayor said he considers those risks relatively low, since the program is only proposed to run through September. Tenants could receive assistance for anywhere from three to six months under the program.

“I don’t think this temporary assistance is going to skew the market. It’s only going to buy [tenants] a temporary amount of time,” said Bovo.

Tenant Maria Rubí, who has started to receive assistance through the program, said her new landlord Eco Stone Group has started to apply the money it receives from the city to fees and other deposits, and not to the rental increase.

“The money goes directly to the owners, and Eco Stone is abusing that help,” said Rubi. “They’re not using it to just pay the three months of rent, which the city is helping us with. They’re sticking us with a $15-a-day-fee because there was a delay in getting the assistance from the city.”

The mayor has heard those concerns, and attorneys for the city are starting to scrutinize the company and its dealings with the tenants and rental assistance funds.

“The money is not meant to cover for fees, to cover deposits, because they have already given deposits,” said Bovo. “The money is to go to cover their rent costs.”

Hialeah city council member Jesus Tundidor said the city is starting to explore creating some basic protections for tenants seeing sharp rental hikes, possibly mimicking an ordinance that was passed last week in Miami Beach. That ordinance requires landlords to give tenants at least 60 days notice when they plan to increase rent by 5% or more.

“The threshold is still being determined, we’re still under the planning stages,” said Tundidor.

The legislation will likely be discussed at the next Hialeah city council meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 22, he told WLRN.

Both Tundidor and Bovo said one potential solution is to start allowing for denser developments in areas that are currently restrictive, in order to get more units on the market in hopes of tamping down housing costs.

“We’re looking at different density areas, land use areas and zoning areas in the city of Hialeah, identifying what areas where we can increase density, preferably around mass transit, to be able to provide more units and supply,” said Tundidor.

Allowing developers to build denser housing than is currently allowed in certain areas could come in exchange for agreeing to build more low-income housing.

Barring more units coming onto the market — and with demand spiking across South Florida — Bovo raised alarm at how residents are responding.

He said an increasing number of unregulated efficiencies are being illegally rented in the city, and some residents are parking RVs and campers on their yards and renting them out to tenants.

“That’s not a model for development, it’s not a model for addressing the housing issues in our community. But we see that there’s a sub-movement going on in our community that we have to address,” said Bovo. ”It’s not unique to Hialeah, but if we don’t [address these problems] globally, I believe radical voices are going to take over and I think that’s dangerous down the line.”

Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.