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More and more people are finding themselves living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region. In some places, rent has doubled. The cost of everyday goods — like gas and groceries — keeps creeping up. All the while, wages lag behind and the affordable housing crisis looms. Amid cost-of-living increases, WUSF is focused on documenting how people are making ends meet.

In Sarasota, a new exhibit explores Florida's affordable housing crisis through a different lens

Older woman in blue shirt and bandana cleans dining room and gazes out window
Susan Sidebottom
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The exhibit at Art Center Sarasota runs through April 30.

The exhibit showcases photographs of real people in the region who are struggling with affordable housing, but are performing jobs that are making other people’s lives more comfortable.

In one image, an older woman gazes out of a restaurant window as she cleans the dining area. In another, a young health care worker wearing hospital scrubs arrives home after working the overnight shift.

Their stories are told through a new exhibit at Art Center Sarasota and offers a glimpse into the lives of single parents, service industry workers, and health care professionals struggling to make ends meet.

Photographer Susan Sidebottom named her show "A Place in The Sun" to illuminate the growing income disparity that exists in many Florida communities like Sarasota County.

"I feel so honored to have been given the gift of spending time with these individuals," said Sidebottom. "I mean, they are working so hard, and they took time out of their schedule to spend time with me. I think it's a real gift and I look at them that way."

According to recent data, more than half of all renters in the greater Tampa Bay region spend more than 30% of their income on rent.

"I was just thinking about the dichotomy between people who have achieved this ideal of prosperity and the people who are seeking it." said Sidebottom. "They come to the area with a lot of hope."

Sidebottom Night.jpg
The exhibit features photographs and narratives of real people in the area who are struggling with rising rents and stagnant wages.

But with skyrocketing rents and low housing stock, those dreams are out of reach for many. Sidebottom says her goal is to get people talking beyond statistics when it comes to the affordable housing crisis.

"I would like for everyone to take the time to look at the people and really think more broadly about the universal challenge of working poverty," she said. "Maybe they start to think about the person who is cleaning their home, or the person who's serving them in a restaurant, or the person who's installing blinds for them and start to think about how they can act and be part of the solution."

To document their stories, Sidebottom worked with the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, which has identified affordable housing as one of its key initiatives.

Jennifer Johnston, Gulf Coast’s director of community leadership, says the exhibit offers a deeper understanding of the connection between people and their circumstances.

"It is a moving experience and allows us to stand in the midst of individuals in our community who are often overlooked," she said.

Later this month, Gulf Coast Community Foundation and its partners will meet with the Sarasota County Commission to offer recommendations on how to best invest COVID-19 relief funds toward affordable housing.

"We are hopeful for the days ahead in terms of being able to use the one-time funds, as well as encouraging our county commission to look at recurring funding sources to address this issue," said Johnston. "It won't go away in a few years, it will be one that will take many years to remedy because it has taken many years to get to the place where we have housing imbalance."

A Place in the Sun is on view at Art Center Sarasota through April 30.

A portion of the proceeds from the exhibit, donated from Sidebottom and Art Center Sarasota, will benefit Harvest House nonprofit that provides affordable housing and other assistance to people in need.

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.