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Monday, August 1, 2022

Blue-collar on the brink: Working-class families are getting priced out of their apartments into homelessness

 By Amber Randall - South Florida Sun-Sentinel - Aug 01, 2022 

Fifty-nine-year-old Danzell Madison spent 11 months living out of hotel rooms or sleeping on couches at friend’s homes as she tried to find a place to live in South Florida.

Madison, an outreach coordinator with the Lord’s Place, a nonprofit that actually addresses homelessness in West Palm Beach, never expected to find herself without a roof over her head and having to skip meals — she had a steady income and had always managed to pay for a place to live. But she had little choice as South Florida rents skyrocketed out of her budget in the spring of 2021.

“I didn’t plan for this,” said Madison. “I would have never thought, not even 20 years ago, that I would experience this situation.” Madison’s scenario is growing increasingly common for South Florida residents. More working-class people are finding themselves in what housing experts call “situational homelessness” as wages remain stagnant, rents boom and they are priced out of the rental market. Some are having to live out of their cars, saving up some money for a day or two per week at a motel, or staying in 24-hour parking lots.

Many renters in South Florida have reported rental hikes of anywhere between $200-$1,000 a month when they go to renew their leases, and asking rents have increased by more than 20% over the past year. Some cities are seeing even higher increases: The median rent for a two-bedroom apartment shot up 34% in Miami and 26% in Fort Lauderdale compared to the year before, according to data from Zumper.

“We are seeing a new class of people that are homeless. It’s families who haven’t really had an interruption in their income, but are being displaced because landlords have raised their rents significantly,” said Linda Taylor, CEO of H.O.M.E.S, a division of HANDY, a nonprofit in Broward County. “These are people who are working either in the school system, they’re working in nonprofits or even the hospital district,” said Taylor.

Madison’s bout with homelessness started when she had to leave the house she was sharing with her sister because another relative was moving in and needed the room. At the time she was paying $500 a month plus utilities.

She started looking for one-bedroom, one-bathroom rentals, but quickly realized that most places were well outside of her budget of around $1,050 a month. She found a few places for $1,500 a month, but with her salary, she couldn’t meet the income requirements.

She had to dip into a savings account to afford a hotel, and when that ran out in two months, she alternated between sleeping on friend’s couches and surfing booking websites to find the cheapest hotel for a night or two.

There were also some nights that she skipped dinner to make things work.

Nonprofits throughout South Florida say the housing crisis has only gotten worse over the past year.

“Without a doubt, the last six months we’ve seen an increased calls for service,” said Sandra Veszi Einhorn with the NonProfit Executive Alliance of Broward. “And it’s been unlike anything we have ever seen before.”

According to Einhorn, the 211 hotline for Broward County, a community and crisis helpline, has seen a sharp uptick in calls related to people needing housing assistance and shelter. In February, there were 1800 calls, an increase of 300 from February of 2021, a 20% increase. And in May of 2022, there were 2,700 calls, up from the 1,600 calls last May, a 68% increase.

Taylor says they have seen a 50% increase in calls for service at their nonprofit, and United Way of Palm Beach County, which helps provide funding to nonprofits, also reported a growing problem.

“This crisis is really affecting everyone,” said Shayene Weatherspoon, Director of Community Impact at United Way of Palm Beach County. “We didn’t really see this before, but now the working class population isn’t earning enough to afford the rent increases.”

Military veteran Bruno Cruz, a cruise ship contractor, moved down to South Florida to be closer to his work and because he was priced out of the one-bedroom apartment he was renting in Melbourne.

His apartment complex raised his rent by $200 a month to around $1,450, far outside what he could afford.

“I had rented there for three years and when I first moved in it had been $1,100,” said 41-year-old Cruz. “How are you supposed to pay for these one-bedroom apartments now unless you have two or three jobs?”

So he packed his things and moved down to South Florida six months ago to try and find something close to work.

But the search to find a decent, safe place to live in South Florida was even harder. Most one-bedroom apartments were around $1,700 a month and renting a room in someone’s house cost over $1,000 a month. When his search turned up empty, a friend who lives in Tamarac offered to let him stay with him and rent a room in his house just for the cost of utilities, but it’s still a struggle to make things work.

“Half my life is packed up in storage. I went from a one-bedroom apartment and I had to shrink my life to a room and boxes,” he said. He is still looking for a place to live, and driving Uber to supplement his income.

It’s also growing increasingly difficult for nonprofits to assist people with finding affordable places to live, said Cristina Lucier, vice president of community programs at the Lord’s Place.

“We have campuses where we pay rents for clients,” said Lucier. “Previously, after a year or two, they would be able to save and move into their own place. But even with section 8 and first, last and security [saved up], they still don’t make enough to qualify [for a lease]”

Sometimes the clients will have to stay with them longer, or they work to place them with a roommate.

For Madison, 11 months after being homeless, her boss found out and helped get her a place in housing owned by the Lord’s Place with a few other women.

“I’m just so grateful to have my own room, to be able to shower everyday and to live in peace,” said Madison.

Are landlords to blame?

It’s easy to blame landlords for the current housing market, said Einhorn, but many of these landlords are mom-and-pop operations, and facing their own increased costs due to rising property costs and inflation.

The influx of out-of-state people also doesn’t help, as they are putting increased pressure on the South Florida real estate market.

“These rents were already unaffordable to a Broward resident, but to a New Yorker or someone from California who have a skewed view of what rents should be, to them it’s not. And a Broward resident has to compete with them,” Einhorn said.

But for renters, they want some sort of protection and feel that they are at the mercy of rising rents.

“There’s going to come a time that the people who work here are going to leave because they don’t have a place to live,” Cruz said. “I’ve thought about leaving Florida multiple times.”