A year after Antonio Marrero arrived in Key West as part of the 1980 Mariel boatlift from Cuba, he had three jobs — working the overnight shift in a Sears warehouse, then pumping gas and selling pens on the side all while studying for his real estate agent’s license.
“I had a goal. I was saving to buy a home and bring my family from Cuba,” Marrero recalled about his start in Miami, then confronting a wave of Mariel arrivals who wanted jobs and a new life in the United States.
“I never complained, because I felt that I had a future, that if I worked hard I would achieve everything I wanted,” said Marrero, 72, who retired after owning a real estate company and a mortgage processing company.
That work ethic typical of immigrants still marks many Miami residents, but with a big difference: a significant number are forced to work at several jobs just to pay for their basic monthly expenses.
To survive in a city that for the second year in a row was ranked as the country’s worst for its high rent prices, many residents are forced to work far more than the usual 40-hour week.
The cost of housing is the single biggest part of the monthly budget. A September report by the Apartment List organization showed that 62.7 percent of Miami families spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent.
A report by the financial site Howmuch.net, published in October 2017, showed that Miami residents had to work 109 hours per month just to pay their mortgage. Miami ranked third highest among the 98 U.S. cities when the average income of residents, according to U.S. Census figures, was compared with Zillow data on the price of housing.
A June report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition showed that a tenant must earn $25.95 per hour, or more than $54,000 per year, just to pay the average rent in Miami of $1,350 per month. Miami residents say that in fact that $1,350 rental is almost impossible to find in a city where the rent for a two bedroom, two bath apartment ranges from $1,500 to $2,300.
To afford that two-bedroom apartment, someone earning Florida’s minimum salary of $8.25 per hour would have to hold down three full time jobs — 120 hours per week.
Although housing costs eat up the bulk of the monthly budget, there’s also the high costs of food, car insurance, cable television, the Netflix or Amazon payments, the internet and cellphones.
The Numbeo database for crowd-sourced statistics took the Miami data, added the cost of entertainment, child care and clothing and concluded that the cost of living for a family of four in the city is $3,667, not including housing.
Cuban actress Ibetti Pérez has three jobs and knows well the game of surviving in Miami.
During the week, she gets up at 3 a.m. for her full-time job as a producer of a morning radio and television program. On weekends, she teaches at the Gira-Sol children’s theater group. And she takes on any acting job offered.
“Now I am learning the script for a play,” she said, adding that she has to practice anywhere and anytime she can. “The other day a policeman stopped me in the car because I shouted, ‘God, get me out of here!’ and thought there was something wrong.”
“The only day off is Sunday, but I also work the day when I have something to do like a documentary,” she added.
Pérez said her biggest concern about her job situation is that television is an unstable industry where everything depends on ratings and there’s the looming threat of the internet.
“Now the competition is not talent, but money. You ask for less money to get the job,” said Pérez, who added that this is one of the most difficult times to work in television because salaries are dropping and the hours worked is rising.
Julián, a television sound man who did not want his last name disclosed, said he was fired by one of the national TV chains based in Miami after 15 years with the company.
“I worked painting ceilings and driving Uber to pay the bills,” he said.
He considered moving to Peru, the birthplace of his wife, but last month found a part-time job as a sound man that quickly grew to 40 hours. Now he’s waiting to hear whether he will get health benefits.
He’s also working weekends with a hotel maintenance crew because his starting salary in the new job is not enough to cover expenses.
Tobias Pfutze, an economics professor at Florida International University, said Uber has become a second job for many people who need additional income.
“The problem in Miami is that the salaries and sectors where most of the people work are very unsteady,” he said.
While Pérez, the actress, and Julián were adults when they immigrated to the United States, millennials born in Miami also face an uncertain labor market.
Tomas Benach, 23 and a communications graduate of the University of South Florida in Tampa said he works 45 hours a week, including weekends, in two jobs as a night shift producer for a local radio station and a sports commentator for Barry University.
“I thought it was going to be difficult to find a job, but I was not expecting the housing prices would be so high,” when he returned to Miami after graduating, Benach said.
Benach is paying off a $7,000 student loan, lives with his mother and is saving up to buy a home.
“When I manage to buy it, I know I will have to keep the second job,” Benach said, adding that the jobs in creative areas and the arts don’t pay high salaries.
Alejandro Portes, co-author of the book The Global Edge: Miami in the XXI Century (University of California Press, 2018), said Miami is a global city with a financial and economic weight similar to Singapore in southeast Asia.
And that generates inequalities among residents.
“Miami displays a clear spatial and social split between the elites linked to banks, real estate development, maritime and aerial commerce and tourism, and the rest of the population,” said Portes, emeritus professor of sociology at Princeton and law at the University of Miami.
Portes said he concluded that Miami has advanced significantly in the last 25 years, but the progress benefited largely the university-educated elites and not the working classes.