Two days before Christmas last year, Rachel Rubí and her mother, Maria Rubí, learned their rent would increase by 65% beginning February 2022. The two tenants have lived in a decades-old, two-story apartment building in Hialeah, a blue-collar and predominantly immigrant city within Miami-Dade County, for 25 years. Maria, who emigrated from Nicaragua, earns $14 an hour as a cashier at a store in the city. Rachel, who is 24 years old, has lived in the building her entire life and recently graduated from college with a degree in graphic design but is currently unemployed. Their modest income was just enough for the $1,000 a month they paid for their two-bedroom apartment. But after the Miami-based real estate investment firm Eco Stone Group bought the 20-unit apartment building last month, the company drove rents up to a staggering $1,650, and they won’t be able to afford their life-long home.
“This is normal in Hialeah, it’s slumlord culture,” said Rachel during an Instagram Live interview. “This does not only happen in Miami; it is happening everywhere. I’m just able to share what’s happening to me.”
Tenants across the country are seeing rent spikes like the one in Hialeah. According to Apartment List’s National Rent Report, the national median rent increased by 17.8% in the last year. Concurrently, unemployment claims across the country have spiked for the second week in a row this month, according to data from the Department of Labor. With Omicron spreading across communities, people are struggling to pay rent due to pandemic-related job losses or reduced hours. According to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, more than 8.7 million Americans were not working in late December and early January because of COVID-19. After eviction moratoriums ended August 2021, more tenants potentially faced eviction, with Black communities most at risk. According to the Eviction Lab, 23 cities saw an increase of at least 10% in eviction filings after the CDC’s moratorium was lifted.
Cities across Florida, where low taxes and few pandemic restrictions lured snowbirds and tech entrepreneurs, made up 25% of the top 20 list of cities with the fastest growth in rent prices. Miami came in at number 11 with 28.1% rent growth. The state has few renter protections and gives landlords the ability to raise rents without many limitations, making low-wage renters in Miami especially vulnerable to eviction and displacement. With no eviction moratoriums, not being able to afford the higher rent often leads to being taken to court for eviction, resulting in a record for life and ultimately leaving people without a home.
“What we’ve seen during the pandemic is nationally, the demand for rental housing has increased,” said Andrew Aurand, the vice president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “There’s some anecdotal evidence of communities that typically are known as tourist destinations, people who don’t have to be at their office to work but can work from anywhere have created a greater demand for housing in some of these communities, and it’s starting to price out residents who have lived there who are low-wage residents and extremely low-income renters who have always struggled are now being pushed out of some of these communities.”
In Little Havana, where the median household income is $27,700, middle-class renters are also being priced out of their homes. Desiree Tizon has been living in a new apartment building in the neighborhood paying $2,645 a month. At the start of January, she received a notice from her landlord that the rent will increase 39% to $3,692 a month starting in March when her old lease expires. Tizon, a social media manager for a tech company, lives with her boyfriend and says if they don’t find something more affordable, they’ll have to move in with her family.
“No one wants to go back to living with their parents when they’re in their 30s,” Tizon said. “It’s either that or taking on more of my side hustle and my side jobs and just making sure that we can live comfortably.”
When Rachel received the notice about her raised rent, she started organizing with her tenants and contacted the Miami Workers Center, a strategy and organizing center for low-income communities and low-wage workers. They formed a union of tenants and created a list of three demands, including a pause on any rental increase for at least six months, followed by a rental increase to no more than $1,200 a month, and a one-year lease that promises no increase over the course of the duration of the lease.
To raise awareness about their situation, the tenants held a community action in Hialeah near the 20-unit apartment building on Jan. 12. Maria and Rachel received a 15-day eviction notice from Eco Stone Group the following day. While Florida law allows rent hikes to no limits, Alana Greer, a lawyer representing the tenants from the Community Justice Project, an organization that supports the movements for racial justice and human rights in Florida and beyond, says the eviction is a direct retaliation, making it an illegal eviction. According to Greer, only the most vocal tenants have received 15-day notices.
“People are getting angry that I can speak up and that I have a voice,” Rachel said. “We need to stop being silenced.”
Rachel and Maria, along with a group of tenants, have tried communicating their demands with their new landlords, to no avail. They have not received a response. Last week, they even tried visiting their new landlord’s building in Brickell, but were turned away by building staff. If Eco Stone continues to refuse to negotiate, Lizzie Suarez, communications manager with Miami Workers Center, says they face limited options.
“Evictions are extremely traumatic,” said Suarez. “To be told in a matter of days to pick up is extremely traumatic and just demoralizing and inhumane. So regardless of the outcome, I hope that [the tenants] can recover and find a safe place to stay.”
Suarez says nothing has been filed as of yet and the tenants are hopeful that the landlords will meet them at the negotiation table.
“They can stay and fight through eviction court in the hopes that it might give them some time to create exit plans,” Suarez said. “But, there is a high risk of getting an eviction on their record, which will be problematic for them finding housing elsewhere in Miami.”
Suarez and Miami Workers Center are currently working on a campaign called the “Tenant Bill of Rights” as a legislative package to include the right to legal counsel, which gives tenants the right to equal representation in eviction court. According to Suarez, only 2% of tenants in Miami who go through eviction have representation, 80% of those who do have counsel are allowed to stay because of their legal counsel. American Progress reports that nationally, 10% of tenants have counsel during eviction proceedings.
“There’s a huge power imbalance between the landlord and the renter in many cases,” Aurand said. “The right to counsel for renters helps you somewhat level the playing field.”
As Rachel and the tenants in Hialeah wait to hear back from their landlords, they hope people are paying attention to what is happening to their community, because it could happen anywhere else.
“It’s an option to form a union with your tenants, and you have power as tenants to fight back,” Suarez said. “You don’t have to go away silently.”