If you spend more than half of your income on rent, you’re not alone

Sarah Moreno
Miami Herald

MIAMI — If you’re one of the 789,000 Florida families that spend more than half of their income on rent, you know first-hand about the affordable housing crunch in the United States.

About 11.4 million U.S. residents currently spend more than half their salaries on rent and utilities, and that number is predicted to hit 15 million by 2025. Facing increased demand by people who can’t afford to buy — 37 percent of U.S. families are renters — the inventory of rental units is shrinking and driving up prices.

Miami-Dade County ranks third-worst in the nation when rents are compared to salaries. More than 51 percent of the county’s families spend more than 30 percent of their gross income on rent. And the situation is worse among low and middle-income families.

Residents of Little Havana, for example, have an average income of $21,099 per year – $1,758 per month. Yet the average one-bedroom apartment rents for $1,450, three times more than what is considered to be affordable.

“This is an urgent problem that affects people from all the demographic profiles,” said Ali Solis, president and executive director of Make Room, which advocates for affordable housing. It has been staging seminars around the country to shed light on the problem and present possible solutions.

A recent seminar in Miami drew academics and leaders of the public and private sector, including Miami Mayor Francis Suarez.

“In Miami we have people who are paying 100 percent of their income for housing and have to be subsidized by their families,” said Suarez. “We have many residents who depend on fixed incomes or Social Security.”

But he added that Miami residents are “victims of our own success. We are attracting money from around the world.” The city’s popularity among investors is driving up real estate prices and, therefore, the demand for affordable housing.

The mayor said that what’s needed are initiatives and policies that make it easier for the private sector to build affordable housing. That includes eliminating construction permits, easing the requirements for parking spaces per building and increasing fiscal incentives and credits.

“The scarcest resource we have is the land,” Suarez said.

The impact on children

Paying a high portion of income for rent puts a lot of pressure on families, especially on children, said Ned Murray, associate director of the Metropolitan Center at Florida International University, and Jorge Damian de la Paz, program manager at the University of Miami’s Office of Civic and Community Engagement.

The high rents make it harder for families to save for emergencies, and they end up spending less on health care and education. The two academics also noted the instability in the children’s lives when their families have to move because they cannot afford the rent, and the stress that creates, even within the school environment. The stress affects both the children who frequently change schools and the classmates they leave behind.

Florida has 275,999 families with children who are affected by the housing crisis. Families with elderly people are next on the list, at 164,756. Among the workers most affected are office and administrative employees, food, construction and maintenance workers, and lastly, transportation employees.

The housing crisis is also affecting middle-income families that do not qualify for rent subsidies or programs such as Section 8, which has a long waiting list.

The role of the private sector

One of the panels focused on the role of private developers and featured Michael Liu, director of the Miami-Dade Public Housing Agency & Community Development; Andrew Frey, founder of Tecela Development; Matthew Rieger, president and executive director of the Housing Trust Group; and Avra Jain, CEO of The Vagabond Group.

They highlighted the key role played by the private sector in providing affordable housing, and pointed out that 2017 was the worst year for the business sector. They predicted 2018 would be better because it will see the completion of many projects started last year, but added that grave problems remain because of the continuing demand for rental housing.

The obstacles faced by affordable home builders, they noted, include zoning regulations, especially on how many apartments can be built in one lot. Without changes on the density regulations, they said, it’s not profitable to build in some areas.

They also complained that government fees were too high. The Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department, they added, sometimes stops development projects by requiring improvements in the sewer system for an entire neighborhood.

Possible solutions

The developers said some of the problems could be resolved with a “pay and go” policy – quickly pay the required permit and zoning impact fees and clear the way for the project. And they suggested requiring improvements only for the land being developed and lowering the purchase price for empty lots.

Jain, whose company restored the Vagabond Hotel on Biscayne Boulevard to its original Art Deco style, highlighted the importance of preserving old buildings as affordable housing. That allows developers to bypass some permit and parking requirements, she said, adding that eliminating those requirements paved the way for projects in the Little Haiti and Little River neighborhoods for building upgrades without having to evict the current renters.

“We moved them from one apartment to another as we repaired,” she said.

Another panel focused on the nonprofit organizations that assist the homeless, veterans and at-risk youths.

Barbara Ibarra, director of Miami Homes for All, said her group seeks to move away from temporary shelters and toward more permanent housing solutions.

“What’s important is to put a person to live in an apartment, no matter the circumstances,” she said, arguing that fixed homes improve the chances of recovering from problems such as addiction and economic emergencies.

The seminar concluded with a bus tour of current or future projects in Little Havana to highlight the benefits of restoring old buildings while maintaining affordable rents. The strategy of combining housing for low and middle-income families was shown at Villa Aurora, an apartment complex on First Street and Southwest 13th Avenue built in 2009. The first floor houses the Hispanic Branch of the county library system. Some of its units are reserved for special needs people, the homeless or recovering addicts, and others are rented at subsidized rates.

The building, with 76 low income units, has typical amenities, such as parking and community and laundry rooms, but no pool. The average age of its residents is 72. Villa Aurora is fully rented and has a waiting list with 500 names.

Carrfour Supportive Housing, the nonprofit that runs Villa Aurora, administers a total of 1,724 rental apartments with 3,330 residents across Miami-Dade. Its president, Stephanie Berman-Eisenberg, has raised enough money to build another 500 units in four building projects in coming years.

Janeth Torres, a single mother of five children, including three with special needs, has rented a subsidized apartment on Villa Aurora for the past five years. Born in New York and raised in Homestead, she was left destitute when her husband had an accident and lost his job.

“In 2011, I almost gave up,” said Torres, who spent seven years moving from one shelter to another. “In the last shelter, in North Miami, we spent six months living in one small room.”