Sunday, Nov. 19, 2006

There's Trouble--Lots Of It--in Paradise

Restless locals call Miami a corrupt, exorbitant mess, and many are leaving

Jewelry, an actress once said, takes people's minds off your wrinkles. So too has Miami's necklace of pearl beaches and aventurine waters long distracted residents from the city's notorious imperfections. Crime and corruption were a small price to pay, people told themselves, for an otherwise affordable existence so near paradise.

That logic may no longer apply. Crime is down, but the city's old dysfunctions have been joined by acute new economic pressures on Miami's middle class and retirees. Now that the city's jagged growth spurt is showing signs of sputtering, regular Miamians are taking stock of their new city: traffic jams, half-built high rises, struggling schools. And more than ever, they are voting with their flip-flops. They're leaving town.

When Brenda Powell, 61, retires next year, she plans to leave Miami, where she has lived for 30 years, and perhaps head for North Carolina. A retiree moving away from Florida might seem as odd as an Everglades egret flying north for the winter, but Powell, an administrative assistant, says she has had enough. "Miami has become an overcrowded mess," she says. "It takes me an hour to drive less than 10 miles." Joseph and Teresa Burke and their four children are also moving to North Carolina. Although the 2006 hurricane season, ending in a few weeks, has been merciful, insurers have been less so. Premiums have been going up as much as 1,000% since 2000 for some home- and business owners. The Burkes watched hurricane and other insurance costs on their Miami Beach house skyrocket from $3,500 a year in 2000 to $17,000 today. "I'm leaving everything I've known my entire life," says Joseph, 43, who runs a small ocean-freighter business. "But if the rest of the country was based on the same out-of-whack economic-fluid levels Miami's on these days, America would be a Third World banana republic."

Census Bureau data show that in each year since 2000, on average over 20,000 more residents have left Miami (which includes the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County, pop. 2.4 million) than have moved there from other parts of the U.S.

Immigrants from other countries, especially Latin America, are the only reason Miami's population is still growing. Ironically, as more Latin Americans migrate to Miami, couples like Fred and Linda Adam may be switching places with them. The Adams just sold their home near Miami Beach, and are moving to more affordable Honduras. "We could hold on to our house," says Fred, 57. But Miami's spiraling cost of living means "we couldn't afford the other things we like to do here," such as scuba diving. "We'd be twiddling our thumbs."

Today Miami is the least affordable metropolitan area in the U.S. It has one of the highest median house prices ($372,000) and the nation's wealthiest community (Fisher Island, where luminaries like Oprah Winfrey have had homes). But a heavy reliance on the tourism industry and its attendant low-wage service jobs has given Miami one of America's lowest household median incomes ($33,000) and the country's highest proportion of renters and homeowners who spend 30% or more of their pay on housing.

It probably doesn't help the morale of working-class residents that Miami has a way of shaking its wealthy side in your face. On many mornings, rush-hour drivers on packed causeway bridges between Miami and Miami Beach have to idle their engines a bit longer as the drawbridges raise for yachters on their breakfast cruises from nearby celebrity islets.

The competition to stay afloat hasn't improved ethnic tensions, either. For all the vibrant, cross-hemispheric diversity in Miami, its Latino, black and white enclaves remain segregated and mistrustful of one another. The Cuban exiles' dominion over much of Miami politics (remember the Elián González uprising?) has bred resentment in some quarters. This showed in the outcry earlier this year when the Miami-Dade school board, whose system has a dismal 45% graduation rate, announced that it would spend tens of thousands of dollars in court to ban a kindergarten book about Cuba that it says isn't tough enough on Fidel Castro.

Even though the city of Miami has the third worst poverty rate in the nation, there have been few credible attempts to help the lowest earners find housing. One problem is weak government oversight of development--a sign, some complain, that Miami's sun-soaked complacency has addled its political leaders as well. "Planning is disdained as the enemy here," says Gihan Perera, director of the Miami Workers Center. Local anger boiled over recently at a housing scandal that Perera's group helped the Miami Herald expose: Miami-Dade's government housing agency paid millions of dollars to politically connected developers for low-income projects that were never built or were used to construct private condominiums instead. "This is a greedy city," says Yvonne Stratford, 52, an unemployed seafood-warehouse worker who had hoped to live in one of the new low-income units.

Imagine Miami, a private community-development project, recently asked some 1,600 randomly selected residents to list what they thought were the top "Miami values." What was the No. 1 value? Corruption. "[Miamians] don't trust their leaders or each other," says the group's founder Daniella Levine.

When it comes to that problem, and to many others, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez says he knows where to start. "The structure of government here often doesn't work," he told TIME. "[Miami] gets ruled in the end by an unwieldy, unaccountable bureaucracy." Alvarez argues that the citizens of Miami are ready to help take their city back. He points to a recent $3 billion bond issue that voters approved for massive infrastructure improvements, a half-penny tax to build up their virtually nonexistent public-transit system, and a new $400 million downtown performing-arts center. And a majority of Miamians support Alvarez's efforts to reduce the inordinate powers of their county commission--which include housing-agency oversight--especially since its members have long run Miami-Dade like a collection of venal fiefdoms. A judge has ordered the commission to schedule a referendum on the issue. But in the meantime, Miamians are likely to see more of their neighbors winging north.