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"It's Just Way Too Much to Handle"

This story was originally published on July 16, 2006

Sharon Frank didn't wait around for a lawyer - or anyone else - to help her. The notice came on Friday. Two days later, after Palm Sunday services, she took to the streets in search of a place to live, using her secret weapon: a red-and-white Hampton cruiser bike.

For Frank, a graying grandmother on Social Security, her bike is part practical transportation, part rolling vantage point to the world. Lately, it has also been her key to survival in the affordable housing battleground of Miami.

"It's not really exercise, honest to Pete, " she said. "It's how I get around."

South Florida's housing boom has left people like Sharon Frank behind. Nearing retirement, nursing a 20-year-old Econoline van, the music minister who calls the Catholic Church "the backbone of everything" wasn't ready for the day when high-rise luxury condos crowded out the low-rent apartment complexes she could afford.

She rides her bike to church most mornings unless it's raining - then she takes the van. And if it seems odd to see a 64-year-old piano teacher in a divided skirt and sensible shoes tooling past dusty condo construction sites and darting across lanes of speeding traffic on Northwest Seventh Avenue, she can't see why.

"I like to check on what's happening. Down on the street, ground level, " she explained, blinking behind glasses.

On the day she launched the apartment search - after finishing her work at St. Michael the Archangel on West Flagler - she loaded the double baskets on her bike with the usual comb and bottle of water and added a notebook and pen for taking down information on potential rentals.

Then she headed north on Biscayne Boulevard, pedaling methodically back and forth across the avenues, gradually working her way north all the way to the Julia Tuttle Causeway. She liked the location of one complex, near 36th Street and the bay, but "it didn't look very livable, " she said. "It had seen better days."

By the time she got home, she had nearly a dozen numbers. Then she started calling - $1,000, $800, $950. Optimism dwindled.

She could picture what she wanted: something near church, around her old apartment, maybe close to the performing arts center that was finally nearing completion. She'd ridden by that building a hundred times, checking its progress, imagining her piano students performing there someday.

Now, though, the city's sleek new skyline looked more forbidding than exciting. Where would a person with limited resources and time find a place to live in this city?

"It's just way too much to handle, all happening fast like this, " she said.

At the Cameo, she paid $475 a month in rent. Her income: about $500 a month from Social Security, $927 from St. Michael's and $35 an hour to teach a handful of piano students.

There wasn't much cushion for emergencies, but she had made it work for years, settling into a comfortable routine. Up at first light to recite the Stations of the Cross, a bike ride to church for morning prayers, a piano lesson some days. Then back home for a "siesta" in mid-afternoon.

She'd close her eyes for a moment of rest and then . . . "Boom! Boom!" The construction that surrounded the Cameo would thud and rumble outside her tightly shut jalousie windows.

"When I lie there in bed in the mid-afternoon, it's like lying right there in the middle of a factory, " she said. "But I have no problem sleeping, no problem at all, believe it or not. That Rosary puts me right to sleep immediately, and I have the Stations of the Cross to go through - sometimes I can't even make it through half of them."

Originally from Toledo, twice divorced, she has two grown sons that she didn't want to ask for help. She would rely on herself.

Other tenants wanted extensions on the move-out deadline; a lawyer had agreed to help them for free. But Frank felt that was too iffy. She couldn't risk losing her $475 deposit. She needed the money for a new place. She reconsidered her list of phone numbers. One that she had thought was a little out of her price range was still available, a one-bedroom for $700.

"I went and looked at it, " she said. "They want lots of references and I've given them what I could." The landlord said to call back after 4 p.m. Frank waited in the breezeway till 10 minutes after, swatting at mosquitos and talking to her neighbors. She didn't want to appear overeager.

Finally, she made the call. The place was hers.

Danny Szarek, the building's maintenance man, would help her move. She called him "a godsend." Kabbouchi, the county planner from across the courtyard, helped her apply for government-assisted housing for the elderly, in case the new apartment didn't work out.

But Frank remained worried. The rent increase was $225, and she had to come up with $2,100 in cash for the first and last month's rent, plus a security deposit.

"It'll wipe me out, take all my savings, " she told her neighbors, "but at least I have it. Now if I can just afford the rent."

The apartment, still modest by most standards, is bigger than the studio she had before. It has teracotta-painted walls, a separate bedroom and - the best part - a large closet. She signed a year's lease. She will get Medicare benefits when she turns 65 this month - she has been without health insurance the past few years - and she'll have to take on some new piano students to stay afloat.

And then there's the van. She needs a new car but can't afford one.

For now, though, she is 11 blocks north, out of the construction zone. "It's lovely. I had the windows open and the fans on, and it was stone silent, " she said.

She lowered her voice to a whisper: "Sometimes I even turn the AC off and all you hear is quiet."