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Miami Workers Center seeks to strengthen tenant protections, suspend evictions


Miami is one of the nation’s most expensive cities, with a median household income of nearly $90,000, as compared to about $68,000 nationally. Not surprisingly, the real estate market caters to the city’s wealthier residents, producing a massive shortage of affordable housing that disproportionately impacts workers with low wages. Consequently, Miami has earned the distinction of the American city with the highest number of employed adults who are “housing cost burdened,” meaning residents spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, sometimes more than 85% on housing, crossing that ominous dividing line between housing that is affordable and that which is not.

Exacerbating the city’s housing shortage is a generalized disregard for tenant rights, says Santra Denis,  executive director of the Miami Workers Center, a nonprofit that seeks to build power among tenants and workers with low wages and a member of the Kresge Foundation’s Advancing Health Equity Through Housing cohort of grantees.

“Currently, there’s no central office in Miami-Dade County for tenants to report the problems they are experiencing with their landlord. So, it’s the Wild, Wild West in terms of tenant protections in South Florida,” she explains.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Miami Workers Center staff have knocked on the doors of more than 2,000 tenants most vulnerable to eviction, abuse and displacement to better understand their experiences and needs.

As Denis explains, “Honestly, we thought that issues of affordability would be on the top of the list, but it was landlord accountability. There are problems with rats and rodents, infestation, with power outages. There are leaky ceilings and air conditioning units that don’t work and don’t get fixed. There are a lot of stories of poor housing conditions directly harming people’s health. People developing asthma from mold. I know of one tenant who complained to her landlord that her floor was sagging. Her landlord ignored her request for repairs, and one morning when the floor sagged underneath her, the woman broke her ankle.”

The idea that a landlord might be slow to respond to a tenant’s requested repair is not unique to Miami. However, whereas in many cities, if a landlord doesn’t act quickly, the tenant can pay out of pocket for the repair and deduct the cost from their rent, no such reimbursement option is available to tenants in Miami.

To strengthen tenants’ protections, the Miami Workers Centers has launched a campaign for a Tenant Bill of Rights. Informed by tenants’ lived experiences and supported by legal experts, the Bill of Rights package seeks protections that will apply to rental properties across Miami-Dade County, and will address the forced displacements and uninhabitable building conditions that disproportionately impact people of color, and single mothers living with children.

In addition to strengthening tenants’ right, the nonprofit has also been working diligently to suspend evictions throughout the pandemic. Last year, Denis and her staff successfully campaigned to continue with a county-wide eviction moratorium after the statewide moratorium initially introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic was allowed to expire.

“Securing a local eviction moratorium was a big victory for us, not only in terms of tenant protections but also in terms of building power,” says Denis. “Often, people are isolated and experiencing these horrible things and feel that they are experiencing them alone. We help to bring them together and to help connect the dots for people and push for progressive legislation to protect tenants in Miami Dade County across race, gender, languages, and class. It’s exciting to see tenants coming together to tell their stories and demand change.”