Human beings were not meant to live in Florida. This fact becomes more true the farther south you get in the state. In fact, what we now know as Miami only exists because a widow named Julia Tuttle inherited an orange grove down there and moved to the region after her husband died. She bought more land herself and worked to convince the era’s oligarchs that the place would become a thriving metropolis, winning a huge victory when a frost devastated citrus crops further north, which helped her persuade a railroad tycoon to build tracks to Miami. Ever since, Tuttle’s city has attracted desperate folks, people with improbable dreams, and those who want to cash in on the chaos that surrounds the place.
Despite the fact that Florida is very hot and full of both people and nature that will kill you, the number of transplants who want to take up residence in the Magic City is apparently growing—and that is pushing up rents. According to a new report by the Miami Urban Future Initiative, 60 percent of adults with jobs in the Miami metro area are spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent, the highest proportion of overburdened renters in the US.
Miami is also one of the most racially unequal cities in the country. It's a place where the median white family has a net worth of $107,000 and the median black family has a net worth of $3,700, according to a February report, and where the hyper-wealthy cordon themselves off on man-made islands that aren't open to the public while the less fortunate contend with a crime rate that makes it less safe than 94 percent of US cities.
"Climate gentrification"—the practice of wealthy investors buying up high-elevation properties to guard against sea level rise—is among the reasons Haitians are being pushed out of Miami’s Little Haiti. Liberty City—the setting of the Oscar-winning film Moonlight—is becoming a hot commodity as well. The arts district, Wynwood, now resembles every gentrified neighborhood in America—juice stores blasting EDM in the middle of the day, shops that exclusively sell vintage cars and guitars. The Design District, just one neighborhood over, is indistinguishable from a mall in Dubai.
What this adds up to is a harsh reality: Increasingly, poor people in Miami have nowhere to live.
Minimum wage remains… minimal
Max Monestime lives with his sick parents in North Miami. The 29-year-old works at Burger King making $8.75 an hour and pays $1,400 in rent. "There’s so much things I have to sacrifice—sometimes food," he said. "Every day is a struggle."
He'd like to get another job that either comes with more pay or more hours, but he says that there's a lack of opportunity in Miami. Meanwhile, prices at the local corner store and the gas pump continue to creep up, as does the sense that the life he's living is unsustainable and unlikely to get better.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a person making the $8.26 minimum wage in Florida would have to work 84 hours a week to afford a modest one-bedroom place at fair market rent. (It’s just gone up to $8.46, meaning minimum-wage workers doing 40 hours a week got a whopping $8 more per week.) Florida has a preemption law, meaning no city can set its minimum wage higher than the state's. This was tested in 2016, when the city of Miami Beach passed an ordinance to increase its minimum wage to $10.31 in 2018 and $13.31 in 2021. The city was sued by business groups, setting off a legal battle that ended in February when the state Supreme Court let stand a court ruling striking down the raises.
"What I get paid is not enough for the hard work I put in," Monestine said. "I think everyone feels like that. It's really stressful. The words politicians say don't mean anything. Nothing trickles down to my field of vision."
Getting cheap rent usually involves breaking the law
Ever since he moved to Miami about six years ago as an 18-year-old eager to experience life as a gay man without his parents' interference, Kevin Vargas has made somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000. He currently works at a lawyer’s office as a collections specialist making $14.50 an hour and as a data manager in a clinical research lab making $16 an hour.
"At one point, the only way I got by was by living in an apartment with a 50-year-old metalhead in an illegal sublet," he said. "One of the main issues is that to live in a semi-comfortable way, you have to look for ways that are only somewhat legal or outside of the law. In another case, I lived with a roommate in a controlled-rent situation because he lied about how much he made doing Uber. It basically always feels like I’m one bad roommate drama away from being homeless."
In some ways, the rent crisis in Miami is similar to that of cities all over America, according to Skylar Olsen, the director of economic research at Zillow. When banks were doling out subprime mortgages, letting practically anyone buy a home, developers responded by building a ton of houses. Then the bubble burst and the financial crisis hit, meaning people who could no longer afford their mortgage payments got foreclosed upon and went into the rental market. A huge wave of young people hit adulthood around the same time. Rents spiked as these two population segments vied for a small number of units—developers had been so focused on houses they hadn’t built much in the way of rental stock.
Many major metro areas are dealing with similar pressures. But Florida was hit especially hard by the mortgage crisis, people don't make as much there as in other coastal regions like New York and LA, and Miami is sinking into the ocean. It's a wonder anyone can live there at all. "Miami’s story is not very different from a lot of other major metropolitan areas," Olsen said. "It’s just more extreme."
"Most people here are honestly working two and three jobs and trying to make ends meet," said 29-year-old John White, who works as a teacher at Booker T. Washington High School in Overtown. "A lot of people also have multiple family members living together.” White has three young sons, lives in Miami Gardens, and pulls in a solidly middle-class salary of $44,000 a year, though he also has numerous side hustles, such as a mobile car detailing business. He's still living in the house he was raised in, although the two-bedroom costs twice as much as his mom used to pay when he was a kid. “I can literally remember being in high school, my mom was renting it for $500 a month,” he said. “I remember being a kid and thinking that was a lot of money, and now in my adulthood, I wish I could find anything for $500 a month."
You’re out of luck if you can’t afford a car
Public transportation in Miami is a slapped-together mess. There’s the above-ground subway known as the Metrorail, but it only has two lines. There's also an aging bus system, which saw its lowest ridership numbers in more than a decade during the summer of 2016—probably because it suffers from roach infestations, chronic delays, and frequent breakdowns. A half-cent tax increase that passed in 2002 that was supposed to go toward fixing these problems clearly didn't work, though it did fund some free trolleys that are owned by each individual city within the metro area and are therefore confusing as all hell to navigate if you want to travel between cities. There are also some “jitneys”—vans run by private companies overseen by the county—although their routes aren't published online, and you basically have to learn how they work through trial and error.
Most people don't want to contend with that on the way to work—not to mention they don't have time to "get a bit lost," like one local publication suggests as a technique for learning the ways of the jitneys—if they want to be on time. However, the costs of owning a car (including monthly payments, gas fill-ups, and insurance coverage) are comparable to rent in a lot of other places.
Monestime, the Burger King worker, said that his $200-a-month car insurance and frequent fill-ups are fixed costs that allow him to get to his job about four miles from home. Given the unreliability of the public transit where he lives, he knows it would be only a matter of time before he lost his job if he tried to use them on a set schedule. "Getting to work on time is a big thing," he said. "They don't want to hear that the bus is late or there was traffic. The bus stops every couple of blocks so that holds you up, and by the time you get to work, you're getting written up. It’s unfair, but you've got to roll with the punches. That’s how society is built, and until it changes, this is what were working with."
White said that he also couldn't get to work without a car "but was digging a hole deeper and deeper." He voluntarily repossessed his old car and now drives one he bought with $1,500 in cash. “Extreme budgeting is what I do to be a successful teacher in Miami and a successful adult here,” he said. “I remember pumping gas for my mom growing up, and it was $1.07 or $1.08 a gallon. And even though that’s a national issue, given that you have to use a car down here, it’s like you’re being hit in every direction."
Having fun is increasingly an expensive proposition
Miami has long been portrayed as a place to party—it’s the backdrop of music videos and frequently name-checked in songs by megastars like Drake. But can a regular person afford to go out? Clubbing at a place like LIV in the Fountainebleau hotel will run you between $1,500 and $3,000 a table depending on its proximity to the dance floor, and bottle service will tack at least a few more hundred dollars to the bill. On the less-exclusive end, you could hit E11even for a $1,000 table that works out to $250 per person, or you could just go to a place like Club Space, which will run you somewhere between a $30 and $60 cover depending on the night and who's working the door.
Vargas, who lives near Florida International University, where he's pursuing a master's degree, said he's easily able to avoid spending a ton of money on nightlife. Instead he'll hit a place like Mac and Chess, where you play board games and drink, a local pool lounge, or a comic book store that hosts gaming tournaments. He'll occasionally split an Uber to Wynwood with a big group, but rarely drives there because he doesn't want to pay for parking. "But mostly people do small get-togethers for drinks at friend's houses from what I can see," he said. Monestime is a musician who said that he spends all his free time either at the park or at the studio with his friends, for which he budgets a couple of hundred dollars a month at $30 an hour.
But there are certainly more ways to have fun than drinking. Half the reason people come to Miami is the public beach, after all, and that's completely free. For his part, White said he goes out twice a month with his kids to places like Chuck E. Cheese's, and if he can only afford to go out once that month, he'll supplement the outing with a day in the park or on the water.
Some people, however, don't have the time to do anything other than work. "Now all my free time is spent working at another job," Anthony Hernandez, a bartender and musician who also works at a canning business said. "I like my jobs, so I'm grateful for them, but it is kind of exhausting because there’s days I would rather do chores around the house. But that’s just a luxury I can’t afford."
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