One of the main programs that helps poor people pay rent, the Section 8 housing voucher, awards money to needy families to help them afford privately owned apartments. But the feds won't pay for a waterfront penthouse — rent needs to sit below a "fair market rent" threshold, a guideline the government uses to determine whether you're blowing too much cash on a fancy home.
But in a county such as Miami-Dade, where local developers almost exclusively build luxury condos and the rental market is cranked up to catastrophically unaffordable levels, that guideline is a big problem for poor families. Only 3.4 percent of the county's two-bedroom rentals sit below that fair-market threshold, according to the online real-estate database company Zillow. That means 96.4 percent of the area's rental market is out of reach to people in Miami's lowest income bracket.
That rate is good for fifth-worst in the nation, behind only Manhattan, Boston, Texas' Collin County, and Queens, New York. In nearby Broward County, nearly 20 percent of two-bedroom units qualify for voucher assistance, and nearly 30 percent of units in Palm Beach County sit under the threshold, which is set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
To make matters worse, it's extremely difficult to even obtain a HUD voucher (there's a long line), and by the time many families qualify, they've been priced out of areas such as Miami. And lest you argue that a two-bedroom apartment is too "fancy" for someone living on HUD assistance, imagine trying to raise two kids in a single room.
"In counties where rent has grown the fastest, there are significantly fewer voucher-suitable rental choices," Zillow writes. "Hot rental markets are one thing — it becomes a real big issue for voucher holders when the value of their assistance fails to keep pace." According to Zillow, Miami-Dade's median rents have grown 19.1 percent since 2012, but the HUD-calculated fair-market value for the region has only grown 15.1 percent."
Though Miami officials have been rightfully criticized for letting luxury developers run roughshod over the area, needlessly jacking up prices for everyone, HUD hasn't received nearly enough scrutiny for its own policies.
Zillow's study comes on the heels of an analysis last week showing HUD's priorities are out of whack: Thanks to a tax program called the mortgage-interest deduction, more than half the money HUD spends subsidizing housing in Miami is sent to the highest-earning residents. That's because the national mortgage-interest rule lets homebuyers deduct any interest they pay on their mortgage from their taxes — the more expensive your mortgage, the larger your deduction. Wealthy Miamians actually receive 75 percent more housing help from the federal government than the area's poor.
As a major ProPublica investigation earlier this year showed, HUD's leadership under Donald Trump appears to have no clue how to fix any of these issues. HUD Secretary Ben Carson is a physician who knows nothing about tax or housing policy. His wife Candy, a real-estate agent, appears more excited about handling housing policy than he seems. ProPublica reported that Carson and Trump have plunged the agency, one of the nation's most powerful bulwarks against poverty and structural racism, into an "existential crisis."
And, as we tend to repeat with the frequency of a Buddhist mantra, Miamians need the help. The city contains the most rent-crunched residents in America thanks to its high rents but extremely low-income levels compared to those of other major cities. Miami apartments are priced for New York salaries, but residents here pull in half of what people working in the Big Apple make. No wonder Miami is regularly ranked the worst place to rent an apartment in America, especially for the poor.