A decaying apartment with mountains of dead roaches, mold on every wall and putrid brown sludge coming from the bathtub’s drain is not the sunny image many Americans have of Miami. Yet, that was the reality Adrian Madriz found in 2014 when he began working in Liberty City as a community organizer.
He discovered the real Magic City: an agonizing world of poverty and misery a few blocks from the million-dollar studio apartments downtown.
“I started seeing the kinds of conditions that I really wanted to challenge on a regular basis,” said Madriz, now age 34. “I realized that I wanted to spend the rest of my life figuring this out because I don’t want this to be the reality.”
That wasn’t Madriz’s first experience with South Florida’s housing crisis. As a 16-year-old student at Stranahan High School, he visited his friend Valeria at home after she dropped out. It was smaller than his bedroom at his parents’ house. She was living with her older boyfriend and already had three kids. He will never forget how the kids were sleeping on the floor next to the dogs.
“Ever since that time, the power and sacredness of the home is always something that I’ve thought about very deeply,” he said.
Madriz is an outsider in Miami’s political landscape. A second-generation Venezuelan immigrant and University of Michigan graduate, he grew disappointed with America’s political class after working for both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. In his eyes, neither Democrats nor Republicans were doing enough for the average citizen.
So in 2015, he and other residents of Liberty City founded Struggle for Miami’s Affordable and Sustainable Housing (SMASH) — a group focused on helping inner-city residents take back their communities through social awareness campaigns and housing initiatives. And although there are plenty of similarly grassroots organizations here such as the Miami Workers Center, SMASH stands out for its work on climate gentrification, minorities and community land trust.
“The way to create systemic change is to address the specific challenges that people are facing,” said Madriz. “We need a base of people who are willing to advocate for a completely different kind of policy.”
In a recently published report for the Miami metro area, Aparmentlist.com said the average rent in the county sits around $2,409 for a studio and $4,698 for a three-bedroom apartment. Rents are up by 27% compared to last year. The median home price is above $525,000.
SMASH believes housing is a right, not a privilege. Miami’s astronomical burden on renters is exacerbating a crisis that is forcing many residents to spend all their income on units with less than humane conditions in the county’s marginal neighborhoods. SMASH is addressing this through a pilot project of cooperative housing, a five-bedroom house in Liberty City where people live together and split the $3,900 monthly rent. Each tenant pays $700 a month with all utilities included, while SMASH covers the $400 difference and the insurance.
“We want to establish one cooperative in each of the 13 county commission districts,” Madriz explained. “We want to use that to build the basic power that will push the Miami housing justice agenda to be approved.”
Such an agenda can be summarized in a single sentence: let every person in South Florida have a sustainable and safe home. SMASH recognizes the housing crisis is affecting minorities the most.
“We absolutely believe that diversity is what makes a strong organization,” said Madriz. “Our board is 65% Black and also 65% female or gender nonbinary. That translates to our membership. We specifically go out there and prioritize recruiting people who are Black, brown, female, indigenous and nonbinary.”
According to a report by UChicago, LGBTQ+ youth are 120% more likely to experience homelessness than their non-LGBTQ+ peers. And, while LGBTQ+ youth make up only 7% of the total U.S. youth population, they comprise 40% of all young people experiencing homelessness.
The landscape is no different for racial minorities. Latinxs make up 22% of the homeless population and Black people account for 40%, according to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report published by the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Eroamias Vall, a trans-nonbinary Cuban-Lebanese person, experienced this firsthand. Vall had previously been living with their mother and the two had a tumultuous relationship. Vall says their mom was very controlling and didn’t accept their gender identity. As a result, Vall had to leave their home and face all the struggles associated with being a minority in South Florida’s housing market. Vall is now a resident of SMASH’s cooperative and a member of the organization.
“If it wasn’t for SMASH, I wouldn’t have been able to find affordable housing,” Vall said. “I feel accepted and welcomed and safe here; they’ve really gone above and beyond to like, lend a hand and keep my mental health important.”
However, for all the work SMASH is doing, they are just a small organization in a large metropolis in the middle of a crisis that is affecting the whole nation. More resources and community power are needed if things are to change.
Despite the hardships, SMASH believes this is just the beginning of a new national movement. They hope that initiatives like theirs spur throughout America in the hopes that those marginalized and left behind will be the wheels of change.
“I have hope in the people of Florida,” Madriz said.