Manolo Sánchez had his dream home: Four bedrooms and three bathrooms in Miami Lakes, which he nearly doubled in size over the years.
“I had an emotional link to that house,” said Sánchez, saying the view of the lake was perfect when his three children were young. But they grew up and ultimately left home.
Sánchez, 72, and his wife, Maritza, 66, stayed in the house, facing a rising tab from higher taxes and insurance.
“The Social Security check is not enough for anything,” said Sánchez, who had lived in his home for 24 years, buying it for $125,000 in 1992 and selling it for $540,000 in 2016. “What can you do with $900 in income, more than $4,000 in taxes and more than $3,000 in insurance? It’s practically impossible to live here.”
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A semi-retired real estate agent, Sánchez and his wife made the same decision as many others: Sell the house and buy a smaller place — a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo in Century Village, a 55+ community in Pembroke Pines. They bought it for $115,000, mortgage-free, and spent $40,000 on improving it.
“I paid cash for the apartment and fixed it to my taste. I pay $400 for maintenance and $500 in taxes [annually]. I pay $75 for electricity, and I don’t have a gardener,” he said. “The hurricane knocked down some trees, but the [homeowners] association took care of the repairs.”
With home prices and rents soaring, along with higher property taxes and insurance costs due to hurricanes, many South Floridians are being pinched by housing costs. Recent studies have cited Miami as one of the least affordable cities in the world, due to foreign investors driving up prices and household incomes not keeping up.
“A small apartment can cost $1,300 [in monthly rent],” said Sánchez. “A better one goes up to $1,700, and in Doral, there’s nothing under $1,800. That’s the market, and the rents keep going up.”
Many have taken to social media to express their frustrations.
“Over time, Miami will be for rich people only,” posted Carlos Manuel Nieto Reyes on Facebook. “It will turn into something like Las Vegas, where you only go to gamble, but in this case, to vacation. That’s very sad, especially for immigrants like us who will have no choice but to head north.”
Exodus to cheaper places
Many South Floridians, especially retirees on fixed incomes and with limited savings, have chosen to move to cheaper places within Florida, usually smaller cities. Others have moved to other states, where they can buy a home on a large lot by a lake or river for $200,000, or to Latin American countries, where they can live well on $1,500 per month. Costa Rica, in particular, has seen an influx of American retirees.
Sánchez said one of his clients sold his house in Hialeah for $250,000 and moved to Cali, Colombia, where he paid $35,000 for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment.
“He also bought a small used car, because he says you can’t show too much money due to the kidnappings, but he lives really well,” Sánchez added. “He has a woman who cleans the house, and he has breakfast and lunch near his house for a few dollars.”
Real estate agent Blanca Byrne said a client recently called her to tell her he wanted to leave Miami and buy a house in North Florida for $160,000.
“In Miami you can’t even find a condo for that price,” said Byrne, who works with Keller Williams. The client “said it was too expensive to live here. He has properties that he will rent. But he’s also looking for more peace of mind.
“They think the prices are hitting their peak, so they think that it’s better to sell now, take out their money and use it to buy something else,” she added. She gave the example of a lawyer and his wife, a decorator, who sold their mortgaged house in Miami and paid cash for a townhouse in Jupiter.
Some of her clients have moved out of state — the Carolinas and Missouri, for example — but most moved to other parts of Florida.
“I decided to move to Tampa, and I am saving about 30 percent of what I used to pay for my monthly bills,” wrote one Facebook user. “In Miami, I worked just to pay the bills. But next year I am going to buy my own property. The crazy and inflated prices of Miami are lower here.”
Arrivals outnumber departures
Despite the exodus, the population of Miami-Dade continues to grow. The Census Bureau reported last year that the Miami-Dade/Broward/Palm Beach metro areas had topped six million people for the first time, making the three-county metro area the eighth most populated in the country.
And as the land for new construction shrinks, the price of homes and rents continues to rise, said Manuel Lasaga, a professor in the finance department at Florida International University.
“The rising cost of housing in Miami is not a bubble. It reflects the organic growth of the city,” said Lasaga. Housing prices rose 5 to 6 percent in the last year but remain lower than in California and New York. The big cities in those states, however, produce much higher incomes than in Miami.
The rising cost of living has no easy solution, Lasaga said, and needs a more proactive approach between local governments and the housing industry.
“We could consider other programs to subsidize the cost of housing, where the government would provide funds,” he added.
Or in the case of Sánchez and others like him, the issue is finding a cheaper place to live in South Florida.
“I have been here since 1968. I love Miami. I live well and peacefully, and I don’t plan to leave,” César Ulises Rodríguez wrote on Facebook.
“I don’t want to leave Miami,” said Sánchez. “I like the city, and my three children are here.”