More Than 500 Miami Beach Residents Have Been Waiting Three Years for Affordable Housing

The City of Miami Beach admitted last year that asking local developers to build affordable housing for poor and working-class people had totally failed over the past decade. But the effects of that failure on local residents haven't been completely clear — until now, and the results seem bleak.

In a letter sent to the Miami Beach Commission last Thursday, City Manager Jimmy Morales outlined the status of the city's affordable housing: It turns out 532 households (either single people or families) have been sitting on a waitlist for affordable homes since April 2015.

Demand for affordable apartments in the city is actually even higher than that startling number. According to Morales, the city opened applications for so-called workforce housing in April 2015, and more than 5,000 households applied. The city randomly selected 1,000 of those applicants for processing, and only 462 of the families selected have been placed. Some qualified, while others didn't.

"The remaining balance of waitlist households (462) have been screened and have either accepted housing, been deemed ineligible, or declined an apartment when their wait number was reached," Morales wrote. He added that Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, who is also running for Congress, asked Morales for an update on the waitlist.

The lack of homes for the city's working class is nothing short of a scandal. Miami Beach, more than most other American cities, relies on housekeepers, line cooks, janitors, and other blue-collar employees to keep its luxury hotels, spas, condo complexes, restaurants, and other hangouts for the worldwide 1 percent clean, organized, and running. Last year, the city's tourism industry raked in more than $25 billion.

The city's affordable-housing failures are also tied to the evaporation of union power across South Florida. Service workers' unions could have put pressure on local leaders years ago to build more homes to take care of the most vital cog in the city's tourism industry. Instead, the city's billionaire developer class has succeeded in crippling statewide unions and throwing tantrums whenever city or county officials ask them to build affordable homes. (For what it's worth, this is not a uniquely Miami Beach problem — virtually all affordable-housing programs maintain massive, multi-year waitlists of some kind.)

Miami Beach has already admitted it's a huge problem. In June 2017, the city said it's plan to "encourage" developers to build affordable units had tanked dramatically. In 2011, the city set targets to build a whopping 16,000 units for the poor by 2020 — but by last year, officials realized they wouldn't even come close to hitting that benchmark.

So they revised their goals and said they planned to ask developers to build 6,800 low-income homes by 2030 instead. However, the city hopes to accomplish this goal through giving developers extra perks if they voluntarily include affordable units in their projects. Considering that these kinds of voluntary zoning benefits haven't worked to create affordable units in other major cities, Miami Beach residents aren't exactly holding their breath.

Instead, local developers successfully lobbied to kill a mandatory affordable-housing requirement rules at the county level in 2016. In Tallahassee, state legislators have wasted more than $1.3 billion in affordable-housing funds on random, unrelated projects over the past decade.

In a breathtakingly expensive city such as Miami Beach, those failures are felt even more acutely. According to a December 2017 report by Zumper, the median rent for a one-bedroom Miami Beach apartment is $1,580. A two-bedroom goes for a median of $2,500. Miami-Dade County, in general, statistically remains one of the roughest areas for the working poor in America.

Despite the fact that more than 5,000 families said they needed access to affordable homes, the city has only 168 such units stretched across four apartment complexes. (A fifth complex, Barclay Plaza, is a 66-unit hotel that is being renovated into affordable homes.) That means there's space for only about 3.4 percent of those 5,000 applicants. The city says 12 apartments are open, but applicants on the waitlist will get first dibs on those units.

Confusingly, two entities in Miami Beach operate affordable homes: The city itself owns four complexes and is renovating a fifth. The Miami Beach Community Development Corporation (MBCDC), meanwhile, operates 340 units, mostly for people who are elderly or disabled.

According to the MBCDC's site, the agency's waitlist has been closed since 2011 and is no longer taking applications. The corporation has been plagued by corruption probes over the years: Its former CEO, Robert Datorre, resigned in 2013 after a city audit found huge "fiscal and operational discrepancies” and misspending. Four years later, in December 2017, Morales announced the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development demanded Miami Beach repay more than $1 million in misspent federal aid sent to the MBCDC.

Miami Beach acquired the housing complexes from the MBCDC in 2014 and 2015 because the properties were at-risk of losing their "affordable" status due to the CDC's financial meltdown, Morales wrote.

In the meantime, the city's workers are suffering. In May 2017, the Miami Herald profiled Fontainebleau housekeeper Odelie Paret, who commutes two hours to work from Opa-locka by county bus every day because she can't afford a car or a home close to work. Paret, 62, makes $15 per hour, wakes up at 4:30 every morning for work, and typically has only two or three hours of downtime after she gets home before she needs to go to bed and do it all over again. The day the Herald accompanied Paret on her commute, she traveled 48 minutes by bus to work, cleaned 14 hotel rooms, was too busy to eat lunch, and then had to stand for two hours on a crowded bus to get home.

She fell asleep on the ride.

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