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Miami residents priced out of a city built for the rich

Miami is one of the worst cities in the U.S. to live in when it comes to affordable housing, and residents pay among the highest share of their incomes on rent. But a recent plan endorsed by the city would pave the way for creating 12,000 affordable housing units by 2024. Special correspondent Alicia Menendez reports as part of our series, “Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America.”

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Miami is known as a luxury destination — from yachts in the harbor to a skyline filled with high-end high rises. But don't let the glitz fool you. Many in Miami can barely afford to live there. Special correspondent Alicia Menendez reports on the affordable housing squeeze and what the city is doing to tackle a growing crisis. This segment is part of our ongoing initiative, Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    Just north of downtown Miami, many residents of the Trinidad and Sunnyland Mobile Home Parks are facing eviction.

  • Luis Vindel (translation):

    Most of the people who live here are low-income people.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    Luis Vindel has lived here for 22 years. Like most residents, he owns his mobile home, but rents the land beneath it. When a developer bought this park last year, it raised the rent on each lot between $250 and $350, about a 50 percent increase.

  • Luis Vindel (translation):

    That is an abuse, a violent abuse against all of us who live here.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    Vindel and several other residents sued the landlord, arguing the increase does not represent a fair market rate.

  • Nejla Calvo:

    We've had success with defending the evictions.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    Nejla Calvo is a staff attorney at Legal Services of Greater Miami. She represents dozens of Sunnyland and Trinidad's residents.

  • Nejla Calvo:

    Mobile home parks are the last form of non-subsidized affordable housing. What we're seeing unfortunately is that these mobile home parks as they're getting bought up by developers and as they're increasing their rents or closing down for redevelopment they're not, those affordable housing units are not being replaced. We're just losing that.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    It's not just mobile home parks. Miami is one of the least affordable cities for housing in the country.

  • Annie Lord:

    Increasing density in single family areas…

  • Alicia Menendez:

    Annie Lord is the Executive Director of Miami Homes For All, a non-profit research and policy organization working on affordable housing.

  • Annie Lord:

    We have both a low wage economy, right. And we also have high cost real estate.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    In fact, more than half of households in Miami are considered "rent burdened," meaning residents spend more than a third of their incomes on rent. Very often people hear affordable housing and think low income but this is an issue that affects people up and down the income scale.

  • Annie Lord:

    That's exactly right. It still bears a little bit of that stigma but the fact is that this is an issue that's affecting our middle and upper middle classes as well.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    Miami Homes for All partnered with the city on a report that helped Miami come up with an affordable housing plan. It's estimated the city needs 50,000 units of affordable housing just to meet existing demand . But the report only proposes creating or renovating 12,000 units by 2024.

  • Mayor Francis Suarez:

    It's an extremely dire problem. We're a victim of our success. Everybody wants to be here. Everybody wants to live here. Everybody wants a piece of Miami.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    Francis Suarez is the mayor of Miami. There is a goal of 12,000 units by 2024. But you say you need 50,000 yes. Is that then treating this like the crisis that it is?

  • Mayor Francis Suarez:

    Sure. You know you have to start somewhere. I mean 12,000 by 2024 is the most aggressive goal the city has ever had.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    The city has pledged to spend $100 million from a recent bond to fund affordable housing projects. But the Republican mayor acknowledges that it will take several different approaches to make a dent. One proposed solution in the report is a tax on empty homes. Miami has one of the highest vacancy rates in the country — due to absentee owners from around the world who buy property here, as well as the city's large seasonal 'snowbird' population.

  • Mayor Francis Suarez:

    Everything is on the table if you will. Right? But it's hard to do a vacancy tax because how do you know that it's vacant? And frankly, taxing, I'm not sure taxing is a way out of a problem.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    The report also cites the need to preserve older multi-family homes, better utilize public lands and change zoning rules to allow for greater building density. It also sees a role for private developers to redevelop and expand existing affordable housing. Which is exactly what is happening about six miles northwest of downtown, in a place called Liberty Square. It was built in the 1930s as one of the first segregated public housing projects for black people in the Southeast. Located in the heart of Liberty City, the area now has some of the highest rates of gun violence in Miami. These boarded up homes reflect the exodus from the community. Today, only about 200 of the original 709 units are occupied as the development is being rebuilt. But that will soon change. Liberty Square is undergoing a $300 million redevelopment. This is phase one of the revitalization of Liberty Square. This complex includes public housing, affordable housing, and even units at market rate. The developer believes this model is one possible solution to the housing crisis.

  • Albert Milo:

    We want to make sure that it's a true mixed income community, and, you know, the units are all the same.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    Albert Milo is the president of Related Urban, the project's developer. When it's completed, the public units, which are subsidized by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, will grow from about 700 to 750 and be intermixed with more than 800 additional units. There will also be retail space and a large grocery store.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    When you first heard about what they wanted to do in Liberty Square what was your response?

  • Sharon Gregory:

    They lying. They not fitting to build nothing.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    Despite that initial skepticism, Sharon Gregory says Related has kept up its end of the bargain. In July, she became the very first person to move into a renovated unit. She's been a Liberty Square resident for 17 years.

  • Sharon Gregory:

    Look how big this kitchen is! Seventeen years and never had an ice maker.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    Even though it's a new unit, her rent is the same: $147 a month.

  • Sharon Gregory:

    Ain't this big? You get tired of standing up in there I say I'm going to get me a chair!

  • Alicia Menendez:

    Gregory acknowledges that living in a mixed income development could be a challenge for some existing residents.

  • Sharon Gregory:

    I sure hope don't nobody come in here with no rowdy children. You know what I mean? Running up and down the steps, sitting on the steps smoking cigarettes, sitting on the steps smoking weed. You in the wrong building. You understand? The main thing when people move in is respect. You gotta respect one another.

  • Albert Milo:

    Our approach was always to make sure that we weren't coming to the community trying to dictate how we felt the redevelopment should be approached.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    But Related was also influenced by local community groups. Daniella Pierre is the housing chairperson for the Miami-Dade chapter of the NAACP.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    Related has committed that every single resident is guaranteed a unit in this new development so far have they lived up to that promise?

  • Daniella Pierre:

    In phase one, they have. And what's to come, we'll have to see.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    The civil rights organization helped negotiate that guarantee. Pierre says she's optimistic about the project, but she is worried people will be priced out as the community changes. And even developer Albert Milo acknowledges that gentrification is inevitable.

  • Albert Milo:

    It's a matter of how you handle that gentrification, right? Is if you are able to take the community and have them participate in the recreation of their own community first and foremost and then I think the project is a success.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    For Sharon Grergory, she says this has truly been a life changing move.

  • Sharon Gregory:

    I never in my life would imagine living in a place like this. I just, you know, it just, God blessed me. I still can't believe it.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    The second phase of Liberty Square is now under construction, starting with the demolition of the existing row houses. But of course this 1,500 unit development is just a tiny fraction of what Miami needs. Adding to the housing pressure, Miami is particularly vulnerable to climate change. With its coastal property threatened by sea level rise, the city's non-coastal areas, like Liberty Square and the Sunnyland and Trinidad Mobile Home Parks, have become particularly attractive to developers.

  • Nejla Calvo:

    As we're seeing the effects of climate change in Miami developers keep looking inland to see possible lands for redevelopment for richer folks, basically, these mobile home parks are even more vulnerable to redevelopment.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    For its part, the new landlord of the mobile home parks, Miami Soar, says it completed numerous improvements, including paving the roads, adding security cameras, and removing over a million pounds of garbage.

  • Martin Feldman:

    I don't believe it's any one person's responsibility. Yes, it's a terrible situation. This is all through the country that affordable housing is slowly disappearing.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    Martin Feldman represents Miami Soar in the lawsuits with tenants. He says given the improvements and the park's location, the rent hike is fair. And if the landlord ever decides to redevelop the land, Feldman says the company is committed to finding a place for current tenants.

  •  Alicia Menendez:

    If the park is redeveloped though in 10 years will the people who live here now still be able to afford to live here?

  • Martin Feldman:

    I don't know. There could be multimillionaires living in here, that's just south Florida.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    Rising rents leave residents like Luis Vindel in a perilous position. He owns his mobile home, but it's old, too fragile, and too expensive to move anywhere else.

  • Luis Vindel (translation):

    The situation is critical for many people. In many trailer parks, many people have had to become homeless, living on the streets.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    For now Vindel's eviction order is on hold while the lawsuit is pending. But according to housing advocates, when it comes to the larger crisis, waiting is something Miami simply cannot do.

  • Annie Lord:

    If we have a major event economic or natural we're going to be in a very serious situation. We're not going to have a thousand people who are unsheltered and living on our streets. We're going to have a lot more than that. So I'm very worried about that day. I don't see how we avoid that unless we do something really big.

Editor’s Note: Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.

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