My husband and I recently joined the house-buying chaos after renting for a decade in Miami. (Our landlord, of course, decided to sell her property.) Unlike many others, we caught a break by having our bid on a house accepted before it went on the market. We got lucky because when it was finally listed, 19 backup bids rolled in.
Left out of the equation, as always, is a problem that has hounded South Florida and other regions since the early 2000s: Where will Florida’s low-wage workers — who power the state’s economy from inside hotels, restaurants, stores and theme parks — actually live? What about the elderly, the preschool teachers, or the day-care and health-care workers? How will young people ever get a foothold? And how long can people endure the long drives and traffic?
Florida’s affordable-housing problem, long shrugged off during the building boom of the 1990s and later the run-up to the Great Recession, is now a full-blown crisis. Without workers, Florida’s tourism and service industries — in other words, its economy — will falter if people have to move elsewhere.
The state’s relatively low wages simply can’t keep pace with the staggering jump in prices. The minimum wage in Florida finally climbed to $10 on Sept. 30 after voters approved a constitutional amendment last year that will push it to $15 by 2026. The state’s average median wage last year was $17.26 an hour. With that salary, good luck finding an apartment in or near a city.
“Prices are still out of reach for most working people,” Anne Ray, the manager of the Florida Housing Data Clearing House at the University of Florida, told me.
“Our competitive edge, which was always that Florida was affordable, is no longer the case,” Edward Murray, a housing expert at Florida International University’s Jorge M. Pérez Metropolitan Center, told me.
Republicans, who have controlled the Florida legislature and governor’s office since 1999, love to tout the value of work. But people shouldn’t have to work multiple jobs (which hurts families, usually so ardently defended by Republicans) to find a decent place to live and pay their bills.
Unfortunately, members of Florida’s legislature still fail to grasp the vital role of affordable housing in making society work. An affordable-housing trust fund set up through a recurring real estate tax in 1992 has been routinely pillaged to fill the state’s budget gaps, amounting to a loss of more than $2 billion since 2007.
This year, the legislature made the trust fund raid permanent. A new law guarantees that the money will now be officially divided among affordable housing, sea-level rise and wastewater projects, with 50 percent (of what should be 100 percent) going to housing. Lawmakers, who viewed the law as a good thing, should have added, “Now, please clap.”
Workers appear to be getting fed up. In Palm Beach County, where the average list price of a rental was $3,108 in August, up $808 since last year, workers want to find a home they can afford. “We’ve been inundated with requests for workforce housing,” County Commissioner Maria Marino said at a meeting last week.
Counties know they need to act and are not waiting for help from the state or even the federal government. Tampa Bay, for example, has begun building 10,000 units that will be ready by 2027. But the overall task is monumental, and taxpayer help is required. Public housing can be built without reviving the giant, dysfunctional “projects” of yesteryear.
Without government involvement, building sufficient affordable housing is a pipe dream. Developers are not going to forgo more lucrative options simply out of a sense of public spirit. But financial incentives, such as changes in zoning and land-use laws to encourage rehabbing existing buildings or constructing mixed-use housing, can induce some of them to build. Repurposing buildings is one way to get around the fact that land is scarce and expensive.
“Until you start building,” Murray said, “we won’t solve this.”