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Gainesville Residents Struggle To Pay Rent Amid Florida's Housing Crisis

Krystal Martinez, 31, has been working at Fiore's Sweet Cup for about four months. The job has given her the financial stability necessary to provide for her family. (Jacob Berkowitz/WUFT News)
Krystal Martinez, 31, has been working at Fiore's Sweet Cup for about four months. The job has given her the financial stability necessary to provide for her family. (Jacob Berkowitz/WUFT News)

When the clock strikes 3 p.m., Fiore’s Sweet Cup in quiet Haile Plantation can become a battleground. But barista Krystal Martinez knows how to handle the kids that charge in after school like miniature Vikings with a bloodlust for froyo.

Only some days, she has her own little guy to take care of at the coffee shop. Those are the days when she cannot find anyone to watch her three-year-old son, Angel Lopez-Martinez.

Martinez, 31, works three other jobs in roofing, cleaning and construction. She needs the money to provide for her large family, who all live with her in a mobile home.

Working at Fiore’s has been Martinez’s main source of income over the last few months, but sometimes it still isn’t enough to pay the bills.

In the past, there have been months when she has needed to borrow money from friends to make her rent. It’s her biggest burden every month – she spends 40 percent of her income on housing (rent and utilities). It’s a common problem in Gainesville, and Martinez is among a majority of Gainesville renters who are “cost burdened.”

That’s defined as anyone spending more than 30 percent of household income on rent. The burden is considered “severe” when the rent comprises more than 50 percent of household income.

Gainesville has the highest rent-cost burden rates of any metro in the state of Florida, according to Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS.)

Researcher Alex Hermann of the JCHS noted that Gainesville’s high numbers are somewhat skewed by its large student population, which makes up around 12% of the renter pool in the city.

“Students, by definition, in many cases have very low incomes, so they pay for housing through other means,” Hermann said.

But even after removing students from the renter pool, Gainesville still has some of the state’s heaviest rent burdens.  It’s no surprise that in Florida, the metro Miami area lacks affordable housing. But Gainesville, despite its small population, is not much better.

Florida has the highest rent-cost burden rate in the United States at 54.1 percent (29 percent severe), according to ACS data. In Gainesville, 56.1 percent of the population has rent-cost burden and 30.2 percent has severe rent-cost burden, meaning Gainesville may be a harder place to pay rent than larger cities like Tallahassee, Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville.

Part of the reason is the growing student population in Gainesville from the University of Florida and Santa Fe College.

“[Students] also do, in a lot of markets, especially where there is a high concentration of students, drive demand for housing in a way that can inflate rents and can inflate prices,” Hermann said.

A student herself, Martinez goes to school at City College every Monday, Thursday and Friday morning to earn an associate’s degree in business. Between her classes, homework and jobs she finds little time to rest and enjoy her family.

“That stresses me out the most, because I want to be with him. But I can’t, because I have to work,” she said.

In the beginning, Martinez said leaving Angel every morning was difficult. He would cry every time she left home.

After about six months, Angel now has a level of understanding rare for someone so young.

Martinez will be slinging a backpack over her shoulder or brewing coffee as Angel wakes up. He asks, “Mommy, are you going to school?” or when she isn’t wearing a backpack: “Mommy, are you going to work?”

When she says yes, Angel responds: “OK, be good. Be nice.”

Martinez tries to spoil Angel when she can – taking him out for dinner or ice cream when he’s behaved – and puts all the money she makes from tips into his piggy bank.

Those tips are just one of many reasons Martinez enjoys her job at Fiore’s.

Martinez uses the many quiet periods of downtime to study or do homework for her business classes.

“This gives me my peace,” she said. “This job helps me out a lot. It’s like a de-stressor for me.”

Martinez also enjoys the people that come in, be they seniors chatting over morning coffee, the students using the free Wi-Fi to study in the afternoon or even the energetic kids that storm in to eat ice cream and play board games with their friends after school.

She’s always friendly with customers, reminding them whenever they’ve hit their Fiore’s reward points and remembering regulars’ orders. But the customers that most often bring a smile to her face are the families.

“That’s something that I didn’t have. I didn’t have a dad growing up. So when I see kids coming in with their mom and their dad, it makes me feel good,” she said.

When she was 3-years-old, Martinez came to the United States from Guatemala with her grandparents to join her mother who lived in Los Angeles. Growing up without a father was difficult for her and her mother,  but life got harder as she got older.

While living in Melrose, Florida, in 2011, Martinez pleaded guilty to charges of battery of a law enforcement officer, resisting arrest with violence, burglary of a dwelling and living off prostitution earnings. She was sentenced to three years in prison. She was released a year early in 2013, but the prison sentence made it hard to find a job or place to live.

Despite her legal troubles, her bosses at Fiore’s took a chance on her, something she said she’s incredibly grateful for.

Martinez began working at Fiore’s around four months ago and has steadily picked up more shifts, earned more income and improved her life. Still, she wishes for a better home for her family.

Finding an affordable home is hard enough in Gainesville. It was that much tougher for Martinez because of her criminal record.

Median rent costs in Gainesville ($934 in 2017) may be lower than five other major cities in the state, but the widening gap between income and rents remains a serious issue.

Anne Ray, the manager of the Florida Housing Data Clearinghouse at UF’s Shimberg Center for Housing Studies, was skeptical that Gainesville was truly worse off in rent-cost burden levels compared to other cities in Florida and noted the statewide rent crisis. But, she said wages were a large part of the issue.

“In some ways, it’s not a complicated problem, it’s the gap between housing costs and income,” she said.

An Alachua County resident needs to earn $17.19 per hour to afford the median rent-cost but the median wage is $15.95 per hour.

The increasing gap between wages and rent costs is partially caused by growth in higher-income housing, like luxury apartments. Lower-income renters must compete with students for the leftover housing that is more affordable, Ray said.

She also said the availability of more affordable homes for sale in Gainesville may have influenced rent-cost burden numbers.

“Home prices here aren’t outrageously high like they are in a place like Miami,” Ray said. “At some point it makes sense for somebody with a modest income, if they can save up the money, to buy a home.”

Local lawmakers have recognized Gainesville’s rent crisis and made affordable housing solutions among their highest priorities.

“Clearly the top priority for the commission right now is an affordable housing plan,” Mayor Lauren Poe said.

The city commission spent the better part of 2018 working on a comprehensive plan for affordable housing, GNV RISE, that was ultimately rejected by the public in November. Since then, the commission has taken a community-centric approach to the issue, starting with a series of engagement workshops that began in February.

“Right now our strategy is one of engagement,” Poe said. “We understand that affordable housing means something very different to different people depending on where they are on the income ladder, and we need to address all of those concerns.”

But a new comprehensive plan is many months away and may not assuage the housing crisis the way the city commission wants it to.

In the meantime, people like Martinez will have to scrape by to pay their bills. Fortunately, that task is getting easier for her.

When she first started at the coffee shop part-time, she made $68 per week. But she worked her way up to $280, and now $875 – enough to pay her family’s monthly rent by herself.

By picking up extra shifts at the coffee shop, Martinez is finally pulling in enough income to make the leap to a new home. And, she has even been promoted to a manager position at the coffee shop.

It’s an achievement for Martinez, who has been behind on rent and has had to sacrifice phone service to keep the lights on.

The bigger question is whether a landlord will take a chance on her in the same way her employer did.

Martinez is moving from her trailer to a house soon. Her new rent will be $1000 a month, higher than the $825 she pays now, but it’s worth it, she says, especially since she’ll be housing her entire family: her son, husband, nephew, brother-in-law, brother-in-law’s cousin and cousin’s wife.

She is looking forward to a real home, for more space for her family and a place to run her businesses. It’s what she has been working toward since she was released from prison six years ago.

Martinez has worked hard for her second chance. With rent costs rising around the state, she knows she is lucky.

Jacob is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.