Income inequality is the No. 1 problem in South Florida. It’s a dream killer that undermines our sense of community, heightens class and status distinctions, and shreds the social contract.
It’s also forcing a sizable portion of our middle-class neighbors — police officers, teachers, government workers, daycare staffers, retail clerks — to move to places where they can afford to live. Less satisfying, more affordable.
The pervasiveness of income equality has been underscored recently by a number of scientific studies. They show the gap here between haves, have-somes, and have-nothings is growing at an alarming rate. For example, in Miami-Dade, 61 percent of households are struggling to get by, according to a United Way report. The situation is only marginally better in Broward, where about four in 10 households struggle to pay their bills.
The findings come from the United Way of Florida and its sobering ALICE study. ALICE is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. In other words, the working poor: folks working paycheck to paycheck and praying they don’t get a traffic ticket or come down with an illness that keeps them out of work because that could spell financial disaster.
ALICE says the minimum survival budget in Miami for a couple with two small kids is $4,700 per month or $56,753 per year. That’s a whopping $8,600 more than just three years ago. However, it’s the minimum needed to pay for housing, childcare, food, transportation, healthcare, and an occasional night at the movies. But six in 10 families in Miami are finding they can’t make ends meet.
You may not have noticed the income disparity crisis if you live in a gated community or in a condo with a doorman. I admit I’ve overlooked it. It’s easy to miss if you’re hanging out on Key Biscayne at the Miami Open, where even the cheap seats are expensive and a snack for two in the food court costs $40. Income inequality’s probably not on your radar, either, at the valet parking stand when they’re wheeling up the Benzes, BMWs, and Lexuses. Not on your radar when you read about celebrities du jour consuming bottles of Dom Perignon at pricey South Beach nightclubs. Miami is the home of not just affluence but wretched excess. It’s like Max Bialystock says in “The Producers”: “If you got it, flaunt it.”
Sure — laissez les bons temps rouler.
That’s hard to do when your wages are stagnant, and the cost of living is up sharply. The crux of the problem is a lack of affordable and workforce housing. Rents here are among the highest in the nation. The real-estate database Zillow says renters in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods in Miami spend more than half their income on housing. In fact, renters in predominantly black communities pay on average 58 percent of their income. In Hispanic neighborhoods they spend 55 percent on housing compared with 42 percent in predominantly white communities.
That dream of owning your own home? It’s moving steadily out of reach for many middle-income wage-earners. The median cost of a single-family existing home in Broward is now just over $300,000. In Miami-Dade, it’s $321,000, up 8 percent in the last year. How does a young family where the father’s a cop and the mother’s a school teacher ever cobble together enough money for a 20 percent down payment?
Then there’s the high cost of healthcare. A recent poll conducted by a nonprofit found that 41 percent of Floridians had trouble paying their medical bills last year. Or they were being dunned by collection agencies for overdue doctor bills. What’s more, the survey found that even with Obamacare, 16 percent of Floridians have no health insurance. Their doctor is the ER. Many families that have health insurance find it almost worthless — except for a catastrophic illness — because deductibles are so high.
It’s all pretty depressing, but there are steps that can be taken. Start by building more affordable and workforce housing. Kudos to local government leaders who’ve made this a priority. They include Miami-Dade commissioners Barbara Jordan, Daniella Levine Cava and Jean Monestime, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and Broward Commissioner Nan Rich, among others.
Unfortunately, their efforts have been made more difficult by slimy real-estate developers who’ve stolen from federal affordable housing funds. But also blame the Florida Legislature for systematically diverting — stealing might be a better word — millions of dollars from the William E. Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund. For at least a decade, the Herald’s Mary Ellen Klas reported, lawmakers have brazenly used $1.3 billion from the Housing Trust Fund for other purposes, including to make up budget shortfalls. The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Carlos Trujillo of Miami, said, “Housing is definitely a problem, but the issue is we aren’t going to just throw more affordable housing into South Florida.” Really? Why the heck not? That’s what the money is supposed to be used for.
When the topic is income inequality, I can draw a line connecting substandard housing, underperforming schools, low-paying jobs and easy access to guns to shoot-outs like the one last week where two Miami-Dade cops were ambushed by thugs.
And I would draw a bright line between the high cost of housing and stagnant pay with the growing outflux of talented, middle-class people from Miami-Dade in the past few years. They’re leaving because they just don’t see an affordable future for themselves here.
Bless all the wealthy foreigners who continue to come and buy up those million-dollar condos — of which we’ll soon have a glut. Empty condos are just one more thing that’s out of reach for the working people who are leaving town. We’ve got to find ways to let them stay. We’re all in this together.