Miami-Dade is one storm away from a housing catastrophe. Nearly 1 million people are at risk

By Rene Rodriguez and Yadira Lopez, Miami Herald on

Published in Weather News

"Then you have a COVID pandemic that is also affecting those households, especially those who earn $35,000 or less per year," Lord said. "Once you overlay all those things, you end up with a Venn diagram that is terrifying."

The problem is so large, even local government officials are daunted. Michael Liu, director of the Miami-Dade Public Housing and Community Development, said the redevelopment of the 9,000 public housing units the county manages is "of the highest priority" to combat the threat of natural disasters to the vulnerable stock, which on average is over 40 years old.

Funds have been designated to completely redevelop and modernize public housing to comply with current building codes; they come through the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), a program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). A total of $491 million has already been used on nine projects totaling more than 1,000 units, Liu said.

Another 10 projects are in the queue, representing another 4,000 new or replacement public-housing units, such as the ongoing Three Round Towers renovation and expansion in Allapattah.

"But current funding levels for public housing do not allow for significant set-asides for 'hardening' our properties," Liu said. "We are only able to address basic maintenance, which is challenging since we do not receive enough in operational and capital dollars to address our annual operational costs using HUD accounting methods."

Liu estimates that hardening existing public and affordable housing, along with facilities such as their management offices and community spaces, would cost more than $100 million.

Public housing in the city of Miami is in a similar position. Of its 6,400 units, 4,105 were built before 1990, according to the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies at the University of Florida.

And even if all older public housing were hardened, it would amount to just about 3 to 4% of all vulnerable housing.


Another threat to residents of government affordable housing: Even if a hurricane or tropical storm isn't strong enough to cause physical damage, the wind and rain could spread the toxic mold that already permeates some of the structures.

In 2019, for example, county officials permanently moved 100 families out of the Harry Cain Tower public housing complex in downtown Miami, declaring the building's mold and asbestos infestation so widespread as to be unsolvable.

Privately managed subsidized housing is also prone to uninhabitable conditions.

In February, the Opa-locka City Commission fined the owners of the 175-unit Cordoba Courts apartment complex $200,000 for slum-like conditions in the building, including mold, sewage and rat infestations. Shalonda Rivers, who is the president of the tenants' association at Cordoba and is a member of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants, said the conditions persist.

"If we were to get a hurricane here now, it would be a disaster," Rivers said. "When Irma hit us, a lot of the apartments flooded from water coming in under the doors and through the windows."

A spokesperson for Millennia Housing Management, which owns the apartment complex, said the company has begun initial repairs on the property. The company is working to complete the preservation financing needed to rehabilitate the building through the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, which provides incentives to developers of affordable housing.

"Millennia expects to close on this financing in 2021, at which point the property would undergo an approximate $15 million renovation that includes significant upgrades to the interiors and exteriors of the buildings, improved amenity programming, an expanded and rehabbed community room, a wellness center, and pool enhancements," the spokesperson said.

But experts say the county is littered with crumbling housing in desperate need of repairs.

According to Adrian Madriz, housing organizer at the non-profit Miami Workers Center, 31% of renters in Miami-Dade live in buildings or homes that are not up to code.

"This is not just a couple of units here and there," Madriz said. "We are always talking about the relationship between health climate and housing. Constant dampness in a building is a breeding ground for disease and pestilence. Climate change and sea level rise are creating health issues caused by spores. All those things - asthma, allergies, even certain kinds of cancer - will be worse after a storm passes."


There's also another kind of housing to consider: trailer and mobile homes. While these form a small percentage compared with the total number of homes in Miami-Dade - 11,716 versus 678,860 - they are uniquely vulnerable to hurricanes due to their lower construction code standards.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew's 160 mph winds destroyed 97% of the mobile homes in its path and killed four people trying to ride out the storm inside one of the structures. The federal government, which oversees mobile home regulations, raised the requirements for new mobile homes in Florida, Hawaii and other hurricane-prone areas to withstand winds of 110 mph - a Category 2 storm.

More recently, when Hurricane Irma ripped through the Florida Keys at a Category 4 in 2017, it decimated affordable housing there. About 25% of the housing in the Keys was destroyed, according to estimates from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That includes nearly all of the 7,500 mobile homes then in the Keys.

According to the Miami-Dade Property Appraiser, there are currently 11,415 pads (rental space for trailer homes) and 301 individual mobile homes spread out around the county. The total value of combined units is $325 million.

In Broward County, the numbers are even greater - 25,648 pads, valued at $746 million, according to the Broward County Property Appraiser.

"There's very little affordable housing available in Broward County," said Marty Kiar, that county's property appraiser. "There are a lot of people who live in wonderful mobile home communities and they have a great life. But I do get concerned that there may be mobile homes that are not built up to code. It is such a dangerous place when it comes to hurricanes."

But for most people who live in mobile homes, the choice is the only housing solution available to them.

When Maria Blanco and Pedro Freyre purchased their pink, one-bedroom trailer home 22 years ago for $25,000, it was the only option for the couple, now both 65, who wanted to live in a good location but were limited by their single-income household.

Freyre and Blanco, who is on disability following a bad fall that wrecked her back, enjoy the expansive yard and giant shade tree they share with the neighboring homes in the Honey Hill Mobile Home Park in Miami Gardens.

Their life there is peaceful - at least until hurricane season begins.

When the area is under a hurricane watch, all park residents are ordered to evacuate. Over the years the couple has stayed with relatives.


They only remember one big storm. Katrina wiped out the trailer to their right and banged up the one to their left. Their mobile home was spared except for a chunk that came off a hanging roof.

Despite the danger, though, the two are sanguine about the fact they are literally one storm away from calamitous loss.

"You're afraid of losing everything," said Blanco. But she's unfazed. "If a hurricane blows it away, so be it. We'll put up a new one."


Housing advocates argue that the preservation of existing affordable housing is critical if Miami-Dade County is ever able to meet the growing need for affordable and workforce housing.

In July, the nonprofit advocacy Miami Homes for All unveiled the Miami-Dade Affordable Housing Framework. When including COVID-19 impacts, it projected that the current shortage of 121,820 units affordable and available to households earning less than $35,000 a year will balloon to 160,460 units by 2030.

"We need to protect the affordable properties we have. If we're looking at risk of loss, it's not only due to the market, it's also potentially physical loss because properties aren't fortified," said Sara Haas, director of the southeast market for Enterprise Community Partners, a national nonprofit focused on preserving affordable housing.

Enterprise partnered with the City of Miami this year to develop a tool that will enable property owners to audit their building for risks and vulnerabilities to several environmental factors, including wind. The tool is expected to be available by January 2021.

"We're doing that work in recognition of the fact that not all properties are prepared, especially older properties. And when you have low-income residents living in these properties they may not have the resources to evacuate or prepare to shelter in place fully," Haas said.

Local governments often depend on federal grants, usually from FEMA, after a hurricane hits, so they can protect public buildings from future storms or help residents harden their homes. Florida alone received $633 million this year for projects that prevent future disaster damage from the Department of Housing and Urban Development; a new FEMA grant program set to begin later this year will offer the state a shot at hundreds of millions more.

The City of Miami has budgeted up to $500,000 to help retrofit two to three of the most vulnerable public housing buildings. Miami's Forever Bond also includes $4 million to help low-income homeowners make their houses resilient.

The county has also applied for a $2 million grant from FEMA to devise a plan to protect public housing from storms, and it has a program for low-income residents to apply for money to fix up their homes ahead of hurricane season.

Miami Beach has applied for a FEMA grant to help people elevate their homes, and sought out grants to harden the two city-owned multi-family affordable housing buildings. It won a nearly $200,000 grant for one of them, the Neptune housing project.

"Preservation is not a lucrative prospect," Lord said. "But the public sector needs to care. We need our leaders to get together and say 'What is it going to take to organize either a massive acquisition or preservation strategy?'

"The ecosystem of real estate isn't just the tenant: It's also the landlord," Lord said. "Not protecting these buildings is only accelerating the landlord's long game - I'm going to keep this for a while and then sell it - which leads to a further loss in housing."

Madriz advocates for things such as rent caps, which would allow for gradual increases in rent to account for maintenance and building improvements but prevent gentrification that forces people to relocate.

"Right now we have a lot of bubbles and inflations," he said. "That's distorting everyone's ability to find a place. Rent regulation would go far to keep that under control. We would have an economy here that actually matches what we're producing instead of rich people fleeing dictatorships in South America and moving here."


Sharon Frazier-Stephens, who lives at a two-bedroom duplex apartment on NE 63rd Street in Little Haiti, is one of the lucky residents of one of Miami's poorest neighborhoods who doesn't have to worry about losing her home if a strong hurricane makes a direct strike on South Florida.

She pays $1,086 in rent for her unit, which she snapped up when she heard about the vacancy four years ago from a friend. The landlord accepted Section 8 Housing Vouchers, a federally funded program that helps people of extremely low income to live in privately owned, non-subsidized housing.

Frazier-Stephens, a personal care assistant for housebound seniors, has had trouble finding work since the COVID-19 pandemic. But she is grateful she has one less thing to worry about during hurricane season: finding a safe haven for herself and her mom whenever a storm looms.

"My mother lives in a building for the elderly that floods whenever there's a hurricane and smells like mold," Frazier-Stephens said. "She lives on the sixth floor and uses a walker and is very feeble. Whenever there's a storm coming, I just bring her here."

The windows in Frazier-Stephens' home have impact glass and security bars. The bars are there to keep burglars away. The thick glass panes - along with the reinforced roof and upgraded air-conditioning and electrical system - are there to keep hurricanes at bay.

For her landlord, the improvements also brought big benefits, tripling the assessed value of the 1954 home from $54,000 in 2018 to $170,000 in 2019.

For now, though, many residents in vulnerable housing who can't afford to live elsewhere are taking a hope-for-the-best attitude.

"Once we know a hurricane is imminent, we put plywood on the windows and strap down the roof with rope or whatever else we have," said Freyre, who said he cannot afford the $200 monthly insurance on his trailer home. "The police come to evacuate you, and if you don't have any place to go they take you to a shelter. Life always comes first. The rest is material things you can get back.

"We've lost things that are a lot more valuable - relatives, a mother, a father - and we've kept on living," he said. "Tomorrow is always another day."


(Miami Herald staff writer Alex Harris contributed to this report.)

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