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"Who Takes Care of the Workers in the City?"

This story was originally published on July 16, 2006

Frazzled, sweating and four months pregnant, Martha Pomare sat down for a minute, leaned forward in her chair and rested her head in her hands.

All around her was chaos. They say moving is hell. This was hell times two.

There hadn't been time to sort through her belongings. Or neatly pack them up in boxes labeled "kitchen stuff" or "clothes" in thick black marker. Instead, Pomare and her motley moving crew just grabbed things as they went along, loading them into laundry baskets, a hamper, whatever they could find.

It looked like somebody had ransacked the place.

Her 17-year-old son Jordan and his friend, Mely Arvelo, 15, debated whether to empty drawers and take them out before they carried a dresser down the concrete steps to the moving van.

"Tape 'em closed, " said neighbor Danny Szarek, his Chicago accent still strong after 20 years in Miami. "It's easier than emptying them."

After Pomare's apartment was done they'd have to go downstairs to pack up Szarek's place. Maybe they'd finish before dawn.

*

Martha Pomare solves problems for a living. She's a concierge at the Doubletree Grand in downtown Miami, the first person the guests see.

"I take care of things for them, " said Pomare, 36. Her oval face has a sprinkling of freckles. "But who takes care of the workers in this city? Costs keep going up. But the pay stays the same."

Pomare, a Nicaraguan immigrant and single mother who gets no help from her boys' father, earns $8.50 an hour - about $1,200 a month after taxes. The Cameo's $475-a-month rent had been the key to making her budget work. She knows she can afford no more than $700 a month for rent.

After getting the notice, she borrowed a car and squeezed apartment hunting trips in between shifts at the hotel. For three weeks, she kept hitting the same barriers: her credit score was too low, the rents too high.

"How am I going to come up with $3,000 in 15 days?" she wondered after one trip into the Miami rental market. "First, last and security - that's $3,000."

So Pomare did what a fixer does: She sized up the situation and came up with the best answer that time and money would allow. She'd get a roommate. It's a solution housing experts predict will become common in South Florida as rents continue to climb.

She looked no further than her downstairs neighbor, Szarek. They'd been friends for five years. He got along with her sons. And his search for an apartment had stalled as well.

Szarek, 45, works at The Grand, too, as a $10.25-an-hour maintenance man. He had rented in the neighborhood since 1986, as rooted there as any homeowner. For five years, he had lived rent-free at the Cameo in exchange for working as its maintenance man, his second job.

Szarek had his sights set on a complex near the Cameo that would welcome his two dogs. He rescued Leesa, a mangy stray, from the streets five years ago. Bear is one of her pups. He can't take a step without the pair underfoot.

"These dogs are my kids, " he said.

He found a place for $800 a month. But to qualify, he'd need a monthly income four times the rent. Szarek makes $21,320 a year - $1,776 a month, a little more than double the rent. No dice.

"I'm still trying to figure out who can afford all these condos, " he said. "How does someone even get a loan for that much money?"

*

Pomare found a three-bedroom house in North Miami-Dade. Nice-sized yard with a fence, $1,300 a month. The landlord would allow dogs, she told Szarek.

Szarek was apprehensive. Pomare said Bear and Leesa would have to stay out in the yard, and he worried about the heat and the rain.

She said they could get a doghouse. They'd split the rent. The boys would take one room, Pomare another and Szarek the third.

After thinking about it for a day, Szarek agreed. Leesa and Bear would have to adjust. "They've been cooped up in this little apartment and they need a change, " he said. "I guess I need a change too."

Just like that, they were housemates. It had taken three days.

"I think it will be OK, " Pomare said on moving day. "You know, what else could we do?"

*

The arguments about the dogs started almost immediately.

Szarek felt bad they were out in the yard. Pomare kept making new rules, he said. She asked him to tie the dogs up.

Pomare felt that Szarek failed to follow the rules - he wasn't keeping the dogs out of the house, she told him. Three weeks later, Szarek was apartment hunting again.

At first, he couldn't find a place. But then Malika Kabbouchi, his neighbor at the Cameo, came to the rescue. She offered him a rental apartment behind her house. No pet deposit. No credit check. And a break on the rent: $810.

He moved on June 3. The two-bedroom has central air conditioning and tile floors, which will keep Bear and Leesa cool. Big windows in the living room make it much brighter than his old place. "I'm happy here, " he said.

Pomare hasn't fared so well.

"I'm in the worst time of my life, " she said. "Now I'm stuck in a house that I can't afford."

She paid only half her June rent, $650.

An eviction notice might come next, she knows.

"I think I would have been better off staying where I was and waiting to see what happened. "I've been through too much."

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