By JOEL CINTRÓN ARBASETTI, Centro de Periodismo Investigativo
HAINES CITY, Florida — Jahaira Vélez has been living in Florida for nine years. Her husband left the island first, looking for work that he couldn’t find in Puerto Rico. She followed later. They got an apartment together, but the rent was getting more and more expensive.
“They increased it too much, like from $800 to $1,000,” said Vélez.
From there they moved to her husband’s grandfather’s house and later the couple separated. Now Vélez, originally from Arecibo, a town along the island’s northern coast, lives in a mobile home in Haines City, a city in Central Florida an hour south of Orlando.
The mobile home is a two-bedroom manufactured dwelling. It sits on a roadside lot next to more than 60 similar homes and short-term parking trailers. Vélez lives there with her two children, ages 8 and 10, and pays $1,069 in rent. To allow her pet, a mini Yorkie named Muñequita, they charged her $250, a fee she will have to pay each time she renews the lease.
In the window of one of the mobile homes on the lot, called Midway RV Park, you can see a black Puerto Rican flag, an emblem that has become a symbol of social protests in recent years.
Haines City is in Polk, a county of 725,000 people, of which 57,055 are Puerto Rican. Polk is the sixth county with the largest Puerto Rican population in Florida, the state with the largest number of Puerto Ricans in the United States: 1,190,891 according to the 2019 Census Community Survey.
On the road to Haines City from Kissimmee, the landscape is flat and swampy, an intense green reminiscent of Puerto Rico’s wetlands. At traffic lights, streets leading to residential areas hidden from the main road meet construction projects and strip malls reminiscent of the Rexville mall in Bayamón, Puerto Rico. Here you can always find a pizza place that sells pork and rice with pigeon peas, a typical Puerto Rican dish.
In Polk County, which is more than an hour from Tampa and three from Miami, overall rental income rose an average of 53.7 percent between 2017 and the first quarter of 2022, a jump from $924 to $1,421. By percentage, Polk was the county where rents increased the most during that five-year period in Florida, according to an analysis by the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) using data from Apartment List, an online apartment search company.
For the same period, the average residential rental price rose 38.7 percent in Orange County, home to Orlando, the city that clusters the largest number of Puerto Ricans in Florida. The rent of a studio there was estimated at $978 in 2017, and in 2022 it is estimated at $1,356, according to Apartment List.
“It’s a national problem,” said Andrew Aurand, vice president of research for the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a nonprofit organization that advocates for affordable housing policies in the United States. “There’s a shortage of affordable rental homes in every community. No state and practically no community has an adequate supply of rental housing for extremely low-income renters.”
There are areas of Florida where the affordable housing shortage is much worse, Aurand stressed in an interview with the CPI.
“Particularly in areas like, say, Orlando or in communities where tourism is the main economic driver of the area,” he explained. “Those communities tend to have an even more severe shortage of affordable rental housing. It’s likely because there are more low-wage jobs. So, there are more low-wage workers so there’s a greater need for affordable rental housing.”
The second Florida county with the highest jump in rent from 2017 to 2022 was Hillsborough, where the city of Tampa is located and which is the second county with the largest Puerto Rican population. Rents in Hillsborough County increased by 50 percent during those five years.
Osceola County, which includes Kissimmee, follows with a 39 percent increase. In Broward County, to which the city of Fort Lauderdale belongs, the increase was 35 percent, and in Miami Dade, it rose by 25 percent.
“Central Florida [Orlando, Kissimmee, Tampa] has the largest Puerto Rican population of any region in the state and the fastest-growing Puerto Rican population in the country,” said Jaimie Ross, executive director of the Florida Housing Coalition, a nonprofit organization that advises on the use of public funds to maximize the availability and quality of housing in Florida. “With so many Puerto Ricans holding low-wage jobs in Central Florida, the lack of affordable housing is a particularly acute need. Hard-working families in low-wage jobs did not earn enough to pay rents before the huge spike in rents and home prices, and now with up to 30 percent increases in rents, these hard-working households often face homelessness.”
From Nuyoricans to Disneyricans
Puerto Ricans began to move en masse to Florida between the 1960s and 1970s with the deindustrialization of New York and other northern states that at that time were the main destination for Puerto Ricans leaving the island. In addition, the 1973 recession in the United States and its impact on Puerto Rico “pushed Puerto Ricans from the island and from the mainland to look for new options,” said Patricia Silver, anthropologist and author of the book Sunbelt Diaspora.
The opening of Disney World in 1971 in Orlando as a workplace also influenced the migration to Florida, said anthropologist Jorge Duany.
Then, in 2017, “Hurricane María produced the largest exodus in the history of Puerto Rico, at least in the last hundred years, to the United States and specifically to Florida, 120,000 according to Census calculations. And then the next year you saw it drop by half, which means there are a lot of people returning,” Duany said.
Vélez, who is a 36-year-old nurse practitioner by profession, has lived in her home in Haines City for two years. After the first year, her rent was increased by $100. And so, at any time, they could raise it again, as is the practice of landlords who add an increase in rent with every annual contract renewal.
She rents her house with an option to buy, and if she buys it, she could tow it away and take it anywhere. But she doesn’t see herself living in the United States long-term.
“If the situation continues as it is, I think I’ll go back to Puerto Rico,” she said in her living room, sitting on a sofa next to the door of the room where her two children and her dog are. Behind the sofa is the home’s entryway and on the other side, with no dividing wall, is the kitchen. The ceiling is low and around midday in early August, sunlight swoops in through two octagonal windows, illuminating the entire living room.
The Fight for Rent Controls
In Florida, part of the affordable housing shortage can be attributed to a historic population increase. Between April 2020 and April 2021, an estimated 329,717 new residents settled in the Sunshine State, primarily from New York and Texas, according to the Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research. In the last decade, Florida’s population increased by 2.7 million people (14 percent) from 2010 to 2020, according to the Census. The southern state attracts individuals and companies for its climate and tax exemption policy.
“Florida is a national tourist destination,” said Ross, who has been lobbying for affordable housing in Florida since the 1990s. “Surrounded by water on three sides with white sandy beaches and the draw of Disney and the huge tourist destinations in Central Florida, we are a target for out-of-state investors. Corporate interests are buying up Florida’s housing stock to use as a rental cash cow or to hold onto the property with the intent to demolish the housing for the redevelopment value of the land.”
The pandemic has exacerbated the affordable housing problem, leading to labor shortages and an increase in the cost of building materials throughout the United States. But one of its root causes lies in the lack of rent control or stabilization policies. There are also local zoning laws, at the city and county levels, that are outside of state or federal jurisdiction, making it difficult to build rental housing, Aurand added.
Orange County’s District 5 Democrat commissioner, Emily Bonilla, proposed capping rent increases at five percent for a one-year period. On August 9, the county commissioners voted 4-3 for voters to decide if they favor this proposal in the midterm elections in November.
In Orange County, there are 1,429,908 residents, including 194,663 Puerto Ricans, according to the Census.
“And the reason why I brought this up is that I saw a spike in rents go up back in 2020. And then, more recently, it’s been going up now about 30 percent, and in some cases, it’s 78 percent average in some areas of Orange County,” Bonilla told the CPI.
On August 15, the Florida Association of Realtors, Florida Realtors, and Florida Apartment Association sued Orange County, demanding a halt to Bonilla’s proposal. They argue that the county legislature failed to show that there is a housing crisis in Orange—even though, in 2019, the mayor of Orange County, Democrat Jerry L. Demings, created the Housing for All Task Force that recognizes that there is an “affordable housing crisis in Orange County.”
In November 2019, the Task Force finalized a 10-year action plan projecting the construction of 30,300 new housing units there. The task force included representatives from other realtor groups such as the Orlando Regional Realtors Association, as well as the Apartment Association of Greater Orlando and other members of the real estate industry.
Rent control opponents in Orange County also argue that Bonilla’s proposal is not valid under state law because “for more than four decades, Florida law has imposed significant restrictions on the authority of local governments to adopt ordinances that would have the effect of imposing rent control,” according to the lawsuit.
Rent control is banned in 37 states, including Florida. Bonilla’s proposal joins those of lawmakers in Tampa and Miami who have considered declaring a housing emergency in order to pass rent control laws. In the city of St. Petersburg, in the Tampa Bay area, there is an organization that is promoting a referendum so that its residents also vote on rent stabilization for one year.
Ross believes these proposals are not a viable solution to the affordable housing problem because they only provide one year of relief, she told the CPI.
Víctor Torres, a Democratic state senator of Puerto Rican descent, has submitted a bill in the state legislature for three consecutive years that would authorize local governments (counties and cities) to control rents. But it has been unsuccessful so far. His proposal is more comprehensive because, as a state senator, it would apply to all of Florida.
Rental regulations exist only in Washington D.C., New York, New Jersey, California, Oregon, and Maryland. In Puerto Rico, a House bill was submitted this year that proposes a Rent Stabilization Act.
Organizations of landlords and owners, such as the National Multifamily Housing Council, oppose rent control on the grounds that such regulation would worsen the housing shortage. They argued that existing buildings would deteriorate and that in places where rent control does not exist, prices would increase.
However, the Brookings Institute says more data is needed to prove that rent control can affect the housing supply. Meanwhile, the Urban Institute agrees that more research is needed to assess the effectiveness of rent control in solving the affordable housing shortage.
Waiting Lists and Deviation of Housing Funds
In 2018, in just two days, 25,000 people applied for Housing Choice Vouchers in Orange County, the county’s Housing and Community Development Division told the CPI. Since 2018, the agency, which administers the federally funded housing rental program known as Section 8, has not reopened an online application process.
“After the online application closed, we conducted a lottery to select 850 applications for a waiting list—this is the number of clients we estimate could be transitioning from the waiting list to a voucher during a period of five years,” the agency explained. “We still have about 250 applicants from the 2018 waiting list. However, this number does not reflect the need for housing in our area, just the number of people that remain unserved from the 850 applications selected in 2018.”
Of the 250 people still on the waiting list for a Section 8 housing voucher in Orange County, 35 percent are Hispanic —not specified if Puerto Rican— and 78 percent are women.
“Billions of dollars have been dedicated to the state and local housing programs in Florida, creating apartments that provide affordable rents and helping families become first-time homeowners,” said Ross.
Carmen Laboy, a 58-year-old teacher, moved from Yabucoa to Florida. She had been renting for two years, and after seeing that the rent would continue to increase, she bought a house in the Poinciana area, southwest of Kissimmee.
“I used to pay $950 for rent, and in one year they raised it to $1,200. I saw the same apartment a year later online, and it was $1,400—not even close to how it was when we got to Florida. And who’s going to rent that now, which has only two bedrooms? That’s when I said, ‘I’m going to buy because at least I pay for myself and if I decide to sell, then the profits are for me,” Laboy told the CPI.
However, she paid $1,450 for the mortgage. Plus, the cost of living continued to increase, and the car insurance payment, which is mandatory in Florida, also went up.
“People talk about how good health [service] is, but I didn’t find that attractive either. I have a daughter with disabilities, and I went to look for help for her and knocked on doors and they all put me on a waiting list,” said Laboy, who last year sold her house in Florida and returned to Puerto Rico. She now lives in a rental property in Humacao, where she pays $550 a month.
In 2017, 49.5 percent of Puerto Ricans residing in Florida owned their homes, while 50.5 percent rented. Housing units rented by Puerto Ricans increased steadily between 2010 and 2017, from 46.7 percent to 50.5 percent. During the same period, the number of Puerto Rican-owned homes dropped from 53.3 percent to 49.5 percent, according to data from the 2018 Census Community Survey, analyzed by sociologist Damayra I. Figueroa at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York.
A source of revenue known as the Sadowski Trust Fund was established by law in 1992 to finance affordable housing programs that include home purchase assistance, structural repair, multi-family financing, home improvement, and foreclosure counseling. But in the past 25 years, the state legislature has diverted about $2.2 billion from that fund to finance other expenses.
“The sweep of close to $3 billion of Sadowski funds into general revenue played no small role in the housing crisis we have today,” claimed Ross, who in addition to directing the Florida Housing Coalition was one of the promoters of the law that established the Sadowski Fund.
Normalization of the Crisis
Vélez said she has many Latin American neighbors in the mobile home lot, like a Puerto Rican school bus driver who she meets up with some nights to drink beers and play dominoes between the two houses. But, in general, life there is “inside.”
“You leave work to come home and that’s it, and you go to bed and the next day go back to work and so on—the routine,” said Vélez with a resigned tone, comparing Florida with Puerto Rico where “you don’t live closed in.”
When she arrived in the Sunshine State, she first worked cleaning houses while she transferred her nurse practitioner’s license from Puerto Rico. Her current job is caring for a child with special needs who she must visit at his home and take care of 12 hours a day. She says that, to pay the rent, she’s always “juggling” between paying the car, groceries, her cell phone…
Nearly 20 years ago, Michael E. Stone, the late emeritus professor of community planning and public policy, observed that the housing and real estate market was creating a particular type of poverty that has nothing to do with lack of employment or income, but with the excessive cost of housing. High rents “cause people to have no money left over for food, clothing, paying debts and other necessities,” he noted in a 2004 study of the housing problem titled “Shelter Poverty: New Ideas on Housing Affordability.”
Today, the Urban Institute says there is an “affordable housing crisis” in the U.S., but the unstable housing situation has been at least four decades in the making, according to author Matt Waggoner. In his book Unhoused, Waggoner notes that a major episode in the destabilization of “safe roofs” began in 1973, when President Richard Nixon signed a moratorium on new public housing construction and community development assistance funds.
Since then, and due to several factors, the lack of affordable housing has worsened but normalized in such a way that several scholars of the subject consider it not to be a crisis—since “crises are transitory or temporary.” The problem is, according to Waggoner, that high rent prices are not temporary but are the norm of the current economic system.
Although it does not have controlled access, the mobile home lot where Vélez lives feels like a small community closed in on itself flanking a long highway. Her backyard is ample. On the well-trimmed green grass, a BBQ, a swimming pool, and even a horse would fit, as Vélez would like. Vélez says that if it were up to her, she would have a zoo there—she settles for the dog, two little birds, and two dwarf turtles that rest next to the television.
The pool is not allowed for safety reasons. The owner of the lot and the houses, whom Vélez does not know, sends a drone with a camera that flies over the land from time to time for monitoring. At night the lot is quite dark.
But despite the limitations, she likes it because, as she says, it’s peaceful.