“Efficiency For Rent. Renter must be employed, single, nonsmoker, no car. $800 per month.”
This ad failed to include that the renter also can’t turn on the air conditioner at certain hours, can’t have pets and must pay as much $1,600 to move in — all without a signed lease that would back up the tenant in case of any dispute with the landlord.
That may seem like an exaggeration, but those are the rules included in listings found on Craigslist and other sites for most of the tiny studio apartments with kitchenettes and bathrooms known to many in Miami simply as efficiencies. The units can be found in almost any city around the world and have long been sought after in Miami Beach as a cheap and simple way to live close to the sand and the city life.
But in some parts of South Florida the word has come to mean rooms with baths or other small spaces within single-family homes — sometimes not even a kitchenette — that owners rent to make ends meet. Such rentals are often illegal because of housing codes that ban multifamily rentals, so the owners try to hide the arrangement by paying directly for the utilities and keeping tight reins on tenants.
“The abuses against tenants are shameful, from restrictions on who can visit you, what time they visit or if they take a bath in your home,” said Alicia Andrade, an efficiency resident. “It's something so horrible that instead of renting the space, they act as though they're doing you a favor.”
Georgy Bicharra said he had to move to a place more expensive and far from his job because his landlord did not allow pets.
“I work 65 to 70 hours a week to be able to live in a place I don't like, just because I have pets,” Bicharra said. “That's Miami for you, a materialistic place that only wants to impress the tourists.”
Efficiencies are now a key part of Miami's underground economy, where landlords do not declare the income and renters have no legal protections. But they have long been a cheap housing option for recent immigrants who live there for a few months before they find better jobs and are able to afford higher rents for better places.
Many of the tenants and landlords interviewed spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions.
With Miami's housing crisis — the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,325 — efficiencies are attractive to more than just recent arrivals. Rents can go above $1,000 monthly, and finding a good one in a safe neighborhood is difficult.
Miami-Dade County is the third least affordable housing market in the nation, with 51.3 percent cost burdened households, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. People are considered “cost burdened” when more than 30 percent of their gross income goes toward housing.
Rooms for the invisible
“I am legal, but I have to live like an illegal immigrant to survive,” said Manuel, a U.S. citizen who did not want to give his last name. After a complicated divorce and problems at work, he now lives in an efficiency.
“You risk a fraud. You have to pay three months, between rent and security deposit, and the owner doesn't sign any paper,” he said. “You can get there the day of your move and there's no one there. You're at the mercy of people who can disappear with your money.”
Another problem, Manuel added, is that since the landlord usually pays for the utilities, the tenants have no receipts to show that they live at that address.
Those receipts are proof that a person lives at a certain address and can be required to obtain a driver’s license, for example. Florida law requires drivers to report changes of address within 10 days.
“If people do not have a license with a current address, they can have problems opening bank accounts or doing other paperwork,” Manuel added. “Banks do not accept any address that is not on your driver's license.”
But owners of efficiencies generally do not want to sign documents confirming the tenant’s address because they don't declare their rent income to the Internal Revenue Service, especially if they receive government benefits for low-income families.
Problems with car insurance
Addresses shared by landlords and tenants also can become a problem when car insurance companies check up on driving histories, accidents and violations. The companies may assume that people in both households will be able to drive any of the vehicles.
Aida Diego, an insurance agent with the Luis Necuze Insurance Agency in southwestern Miami, said that could affect policies, even when there's no history of accidents or fines.
“Another driver at home is another risk of an accident on the street,” she said.
Diego recommends drivers provide proof that the other people living at the same address have their own insurance and will not be using the policy holder’s car.
“The person would have to show they have their own policy. The number of the policy and the dates it covers are good enough,” she added. “It also depends on the company's requirements. For some, it's enough to say that part of a house is rented.”
Diego added that landlords should also ask tenants for proof that they have car insurance, in case their own insurance companiess ask for the information.
Many owners of efficiencies also ask renters to submit proof that they have no criminal record.
“How much of your privacy do you have to sacrifice just because you need housing?” said Manuel, adding that tenants can’t demand to see what kind of criminal record their landlords might have. “Imagine that you might be living in the same house with a sex offender. And your name comes up when someone checks that address” in a sex offender's registry.
The tenant-landlord relationship can be tenuous.
“If a tenant stops paying, how's the owner of the efficiency going to evict him?” Manuel said. “If he goes to the police, they will discover the violation.”
A positive experience
Not all landlords are bad and for many immigrants, efficiencies provide a short-term step toward assimilation.
Olania, who arrived from Spain in 2012, lived in two efficiencies before moving to a third one in North Miami for $650 a month.
“It was a Florida room that had been converted into a living room, and it had a bedroom and a patio,” she recalled. “I could have pets and have my little parties. The owner made it easier for me by allowing me to pay toward the rent every 15 days,” said Olania, who lived in the last efficiency until January 2017, when she moved to a house with her family.
Pablo Enrique lived in a house divided into three units in a neighborhood near Coral Gables. He paid $600 per month, utilities included.
“I had one room, kitchen and bathroom, and one parking spot,” he said. “The space was tiny. The kitchen was in the same room and clothes picked up the smells.”
Pablo Enrique had planned to stay there until he finished his nursing studies. But the landlord found out his partner was living with him and threw them out.
“It was a place for only one person,” he said. “Those were the rules, and we broke them.”
Why owners rent
Alicia, who owns a house in a desirable neighborhood near downtown Miami, rents out two efficiencies: one in the converted garage and one in a room within the house but with its own entrance.
She's rented the garage to the same tenant for more than 10 years, she said, and raised the rent only a little bit when she was forced to carry out a major renovation. The monthly rental fee was $500 but was dropped to $475 when the tenant started having financial problems. Eventually the renter stopped paying and was thrown out.
“I rent it because I have no other choice. After I retired, the money is not enough,” said Alicia. “I love to travel, but I wouldn't do it even if I could afford it. The truth is, it's a problem when someone doesn't pay on time or destroys the place.”
Alicia said she never asks for a security deposit, and has to pay for any repairs out of her own pocket. She does not plan to rent the room inside the main house again, but has had a lot requests.
“This is a great location, and people seek it out,” she added. “Many people don't want the commitment of owning a house. And besides, this kind of space comes with utilities included.”
High demand for housing
William Hardin, head of the Hollo School of Real Estate at Florida International University, said that cracking down on efficiencies would have a high social cost. Many people would be left out on the street and the already high demand for housing would increase.
“There would be more people looking to rent, and therefore prices would rise,” Hardin said.
But he also cautioned that landlords who illegally subdivide a single-family home for renting purposes will be spending money they may not recover when they want to sell the property.
“The illegal use of one part of the property reduces its market value,” he said. “The zoning code is designed to improve the quality of life of the neighborhood.”
There’s a limited number of affordable apartment buildings under construction in Miami. South Florida developers tend to favor luxury properties because of the higher profit margins, Hardin added.
Even with the housing crunch, Hardin noted that South Florida's population grows each year.
“People are continuing to move to Miami,” he said. “They come looking for something better and different, and it seems they find it.”
Follow Sarah Moreno on Twitter @SarahMorenoENH