Housing Crisis Growing In South Florida

  • Wilton Manors had been hit hard

Illustration via freepik.com.

It was almost Christmas 2023 when a family came through SunServe’s door. A mom, a dad, and their six children under the age of 11 were in dire straits. They were moving from shelter to shelter, and they saw no glimmer of hope. It’s a story Brenda Rentas will never forget.

“They came in with a level of brokenness that you can feel before they walked into the room.”

Rentas is SunServe’s Director of Housing and knows better than most how the housing crisis is impacting South Florida.

According to real estate website Zillow, the average rent in Broward County is $2,900 per month. At a recent city commission meeting in Wilton Manors, one property manager described a 1/1 in an average community as “affordable” at $1,600 per month. The average income in Broward County is only $37,000.

The county says 15% of adults and 20% of children live below the poverty line.

This family, and hundreds like them, have no chance of being able to house and feed their families on their own. That’s when Rentas and the entire SunServe team get to work.

“There were three other case managers. One looking for food. One looking for socks. We were all gathering different things. People in the other departments would say, ‘Hey! What are you guys looking for?’”

The organization's motto, “We Help People,” is a personal mantra for staff members. While the primary mission of SunServe is mental health, they realize that mental health issues are affected by housing insecurity, food insecurity, physical health insecurity and more.

That’s why, when a person or a family comes in, everyone gets involved. There’s a pantry with emergency snacks and water in their office. There are vouchers for Out of the Closet, which helped the family get clothes. They got a hotel room for the night and the holidays.

But before they left, there was one more surprise.

“[CEO] Tony [Lima] and [VP of Programs] Alex [Spriggs] walk up with Christmas mugs. They had cookies and snacks inside. The looks on the kids’ faces, with mom and dad, you could feel it. They knew someone cared.”

Then, the new year brought new hope.

“By the time we were getting the family ready to leave, their case manager was setting up immediate housing. She found subsidized housing that’s affordable, that is nice and spacious,” Rentas said. “We all came together like the family that we are here. We all worked together to get that family what they needed. The kids were so grateful. It was overwhelming in a good way.”

Cynics may chalk this up to holiday-fueled overexuberance, but you get the feeling this could have happened in July and the story would be the same. When you listen to Rentas tell the story months later, her voice makes it feel like it was yesterday.

The mom of three adult children and MBA candidate has compassion and love in her voice without a hint of frustration or exhaustion.

“It’s about people feeling heard and respected. A stigma is there, and whatever baggage they come in with is heavy,” Rentas said. Her team helps people get important documents like social security cards, ID cards and employment records. “We’ll refer them to where they need to go. We will advocate for them and teach them to advocate for themselves.”

As for the family, the Christmas miracle continues.

“They’re doing great. We helped them get furniture for the new place. The kids are back in school and parents are communicating with us.”

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