A Place for Everyone

Fort Lauderdale has plans and strategies for building to serve a growing community’s housing needs. But what’s the reality for people living it?


Jess Swanson

Published date: 

Oct. 1, 2017

If Broward County was a game of Monopoly, Flagler Village would be Connecticut Avenue: one of the baby blue properties at the front of the board near jail. It once had some of the lowest rents around, but those have now skyrocketed after the players turned the square into a mini‑metropolis teeming with little green houses and red hotels—or luxury towers sprouting more than 10 stories in the air like bean stalks, midlevel lofts resting on top of trendy cafes and hip, kaleidoscopic graffiti giving the illusion that starving artists were once there.

In that case, Sistrunk would certainly be Baltic Avenue: the maroon property beside Connecticut on the cheaper side of the railroad.

Though some consider Sistrunk overrun with drugs and crime, residents like Marie Huntley say it’s not the blighted wasteland others make it out to be. For Huntley, a proud Sistrunk native and community activist, it’s home. It’s where her aunts and cousins live, where seniors play dominos on the corner and kids jump on the Lincoln Park swings after school. It’s the city’s oldest black neighborhood and named after civil rights leader Dr. James Sistrunk, who brought the first black hospital to Fort Lauderdale.

It’s not that Huntley wants to keep Sistrunk stuck in the past—she argues Sistrunk sorely needs mixed-use development—but the sudden building boom on the other side of the tracks is intimidating, especially when the sites of former industrial warehouses and Section 8 rentals are now luxury apartments, some costing more than $3,600 a month.

“A community should try to revitalize itself but not to the extent of gentrification,” Huntley says. “I don’t want my people displaced. They’ve made lives for themselves here and I don’t want them to go anywhere.”

Huntley feared that the bulldozers and cranes were contagious and that it was only a matter of time before they spread west. In June, it happened: A sleek 11-story apartment complex boasting an infinity swimming pool and a residents’ dog park was approved for a prime spot on Sistrunk Boulevard—the site of a quaint church near the water tower. The developer’s promise for market-rate pricing wasn’t reassuring to Huntley. With rents starting at $1,100 for a one-bedroom, the project doesn’t seem marketed to her or her neighbors.

“Really? Eleven-hundred dollars for a one-bedroom is what you call affordable housing? When I hear those prices, I hear gentrification. Those prices aren’t affordable to people who live here.”

South Florida is considered to be one of the least affordable places to live in the country—and it’s not just Sistrunk and Flagler Village. In the past three years, more than 2,700 units were completed across Fort Lauderdale. In 2015, average rent was listed at $1,846. The following year it was $2,148—an astronomical 15 percent uptick. As Flagler Village trades its rundown houses for hipster bars, some argue that the new development is a good thing. But as vacancy rates start to climb and cash-strapped families struggle to find a roof to put over their heads, others criticize the city for pitting residents’ needs against developers catering to the ultra-rich shopping for second homes.

“I have vehemently spoken against that attitude and I am always in the minority; the majority of the commission are more in tune with economic development,” says Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Dean Trantalis, whose district includes Flagler Village. But Trantalis doesn’t necessarily believe some of the criticisms are warranted. “Everyone would love to live at Versailles for half the price…We’re currently experiencing a building boom and new construction is always going to cost more than old construction. We have to understand that when we’re starting out in life, we have to work for that.” Mandy Bartle certainly doesn’t see it like that. As executive director of the South Florida Community Land Trust, a nonprofit that provides apartments and homes below market rate, she’s flooded with calls from desperate families in need of an affordable place to live, which can be frustrating since all their properties are typically occupied. “The need for affordable housing is far greater than people realize and a lot of times it takes public outcry to get local governments to act,” Bartle says. “There is no local source of funding [for affordable housing] from Fort Lauderdale and I think [the city] needs to act because the only way to have an inclusive and sustainable economy is to make sure people can afford to live here.” When it comes to high rents, Fort Lauderdale is a perfect storm more than a decade in the making. During the housing bubble between 2002 and 2006, roughly 3,100 apartments in Fort Lauderdale were converted into condos, which created a shortage of apartments before the recession hit. By 2008, that need intensified when folks whose homes were foreclosed on sought rentals. Most condos were never converted back to apartments and banks were wary of new development. Everything sat stagnant for a while.

According to L. Keith White, president of Reinhold P. Wolff Economic Research in Oakland Park, the tide started to turn slowly in 2012, when a mere 90 apartments were completed in Fort Lauderdale, and then all at once in 2014, when 1,317 units became available in one year. By the end of 2016, 1,400 more apartments were finished. There are at least 2,000 units currently under construction or recently completed. White is aware of at least 16 more projects that have been approved and are in planning stages. “For years the market was starving for new units and now all of a sudden here it is,” White says. “It makes it difficult to evaluate when it’s enough.”

City leaders had years earlier planned for the need for more housing. “We recognized that Fort Lauderdale was growing many, many years ago with the 2003 Master Plan for downtown,” Trantalis says of the city’s building boom. “What you see today is a fulfillment of that master plan after some setbacks.”

He’s confident that residents can still find affordable housing in Fort Lauderdale. “There are many places to live and a wonderful mix of housing in Fort Lauderdale,” he says. “There are beautiful housing complexes—not new—but all of which are very affordable.”

Bartle, of the South Florida Land Trust, sees things differently and questions how much “beautiful” but affordable older housing is out there. “It should never be a choice between living somewhere that’s affordable but substandard or living somewhere that you can’t afford but is decent,” she says. “The old strategy was to move further out, drive further, but what we see now is that even if costs go down, transportation prices go up.”

“It’s still never enough.”

On a recent Saturday afternoon at Marty’s Bar in downtown Fort Lauderdale, a tall 27-year-old with slick brown hair skips up to the counter and orders a $3 Bud Light. Dave spent the past five hours in the searing heat, knocking on doors and gathering signatures for his canvassing job. In a few hours, he’ll be seating folks and taking their orders at a popular seafood restaurant on the water. This is Dave’s only break all day and he still manages to keep a spring in his step. He shows no signs that he’s trying to settle his crippling anxiety about making rent this month.

Speaking about rent or the failure to make it is deeply personal and embarrassing; Dave requested anonymity. He splits a no-frills three-bedroom home in Dania Beach with friends. Even though he works seven days a week and balances two jobs, he never quite has enough for his modest accommodation. Last year, it got so bad that he had to sleep in a tent in a friend’s backyard for two months. Now if he doesn’t come up with $400 in six days, he says he’ll be homeless. “I’m freaking out,” he says between sips. “People tell you to just get a job, live the American dream, work harder, but it’s still never enough. The wages aren’t matching with the rents.”

Fort Lauderdale relies on its service and tourism industry, and in turn folks like Dave who form its work force. The only problem is finding places where they can afford to live, especially when the U.S. Census lists jobs in the “Food & Serving” and “Cleaning & Maintenance” as two of the most common and lowest paid sectors in Fort Lauderdale.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, families who spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing are considered cost-burdened. The median salary in Fort Lauderale is $50,778. Going by HUD’s rule, a person making that much should be paying no more than $1,270 a month on rent. But median yearly earnings are $17,848 for someone in the food and service industry and $16,139 in cleaning and maintenance, which means their rents should be no more than $446 and $403 respectively. If not, the government says they may struggle to afford groceries, transportation or medical care.

Every Friday at Stranahan Park, members of Food Not Bombs share food with others who might not be able to afford a healthy meal. It’s not just the homeless who rely on their weekly meals; if rent is gobbling up the biggest chunk of folks’ earnings, that leaves hardly any left over for groceries.

“There’s poor families that still come to the sharings,” says Nathan Pim, a member of Food Not Bombs, who has grown frustrated with the city’s failure to improve the quality of life for poor residents. “Every time affordable housing units are proposed, it’s heavily scrutinized by the city. It also seems like most of these [new downtown apartment] buildings struggle to even find tenants.”

It seems counterintuitive that among all this buzzy new construction, folks are still struggling to find places to live. It’s not just a Fort Lauderdale phenomenon. Earlier this year, researchers at the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies found that 38.9 million households in the U.S. pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing. The Urban Institute estimates that for every 100 low-income households in need of affordable housing, only 29 units are available. It’s gotten so bad that experts believe local governments need to intervene with new policies and funds.

As overwhelming as this affordability crisis has become, cities around the country are whipping up solutions. In Denver, a pilot “buy-down” program is turning empty market-rate apartments into affordable housing apartments by covering the difference in rents with funds created from a new property tax and developer fees. In Portland, city officials have loosened up zoning requirements that prohibit “granny flats,” or small structures on existing property typically made by converting a garage or alleyhouse into a studio apartment.

There’s been talk in Fort Lauderdale about solutions. The city’s planning and zoning boards have considered adopting a residential developer fee if a project does not offer any units below the market rate and creating a fund to build affordable housing projects in the city. Another idea is to offer incentives for developers, like allowing them to build denser buildings or a tax break for those who do offer affordable units, which would waive at least some of their property taxes. But Trantalis doesn’t think it’s come to that yet.

“If we have more inventory than demand, then there’s going to be a leveling out, a lowering of rental prices,” he says. “Right now, I don’t fear that. I think we’re still enjoying a strong wave for this type of housing and living environment.”

Even without city incentives, some developers are already suggesting below market-rate housing projects. In July, city commissioners approved FATcity, a project that will bring two 30-story towers with 612 units just north of Broward Boulevard on Andrews Avenue. The rents for the one-, two- and three-bedroom units will start at prices less than $1,000 a month.

The South Florida Land Trust gives land to developers for free through grants and federal and state subsidies. With fewer costs to recoup, developers can offer new, below market-rate units. It’s a long-term approach to affordable housing since anything they build stays affordable forever and can’t be sold or up-charged. It also means folks who are lucky enough to land one of those units stay for as long as they can. “We rarely have a unit available,” Bartle says, “and if we do we’re inundated with calls and it gets filled after a few days.”

People from all walks of life and all across Fort Lauderdale are struggling to make rent, and yet "affordable housing" still carries a negative stereotype. Bartle tries to challenge it in hopes that it’ll make residents and government officials more open to coming together to tackle the issue head-on.

“There’s definitely a stigma when I talk about affordable housing but it means what you can afford—on any income—towards housing,” she says. “Sometimes, it’s those people we see every day. Sometimes it’s even our children who need it.”