Hurricane Ian worsens Florida housing crisis

Before Hurricane Ian caused billions of dollars of damage in Florida, Alaura Miller considered herself to be lower middle class.

Now, she says, she is one of the poor.

The mobile home that Miller rented for $1,000 a month and shared with her 23-year-old son in the inland community of Arcadia was so badly damaged that it will have to be demolished.

“We really don’t know which way we’re going — whether we’re going out of state or whether we’re staying,” she said, adding that without rental assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, she would have to move to Texas to live with one of her daughters.

Miller, 60, a retired barber, is among the low- or fixed-income Floridians struggling to find affordable housing in one of the most popular and expensive states to live in.

“Florida entered this hurricane season with already a shortage of affordable housing, especially for people working in service jobs and other low-wage jobs,” said Anne Ray, a research fellow at the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies from the University of Florida.

“And so people who have lost their homes are going to be competing with people who are already trying to find affordable housing. It’s a difficult situation, very difficult.”

Housing costs have soared in recent years for renters and homeowners, Ray said.

Mobile home residents clean up debris in Fort Myers, Florida September 29 after Hurricane Ian. Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images

“There has been a very high rent acceleration in Florida, especially over the past year,” she said. “And salaries haven’t kept pace. So the general trend is this growing gap between housing costs and what people can afford to pay based on their salary.”

Miller was able to get a generator on Tuesday and plans to stay in the back of her mobile home, which she says suffered less damage than the front of the house, until its owner tears it down.

“The kitchen and the two bedrooms are intact, but we won’t be able to stay here for long because it’s [the landlord] going to have to tear it down,” she said.

Miller said between her meager savings and the money her son earns working at the Winn-Dixie supermarket, the two can’t afford a more expensive rental. Arcadia is in one of the poorest counties in the state.

Displaced people from Arcadia would struggle to find anything similar elsewhere in the state, Ray said. The median sale price for a single-family home in Arcadia was $138,500 in the first half of 2021, compared to $324,900 for those in the state, according to data provided by the University of Florida’s Shimberg Center. The median gross rent, meaning rent and utilities, in Arcadia was $750 in 2020, compared to $1,218 in Florida.

Brenda West, 69, a retired respiratory therapist and widow, also paid $1,000 a month to rent a modest two-bedroom, one-bathroom home in Myakka City that Ian destroyed. West shared the house with her daughter, Gwendolyn Gay, who has multiple sclerosis and whom she takes care of. Both women perceive a disability, West said. With limited resources and no family in Florida, the two stayed at a shoddy motel in Bradenton that West booked through Friday.

“After that, I don’t know where I’m going,” she said Wednesday. “My resources are about to run out.”

The couple cannot go to a shelter because West said his daughter’s multiple sclerosis prevents her from sleeping on a cot. Additionally, her daughter has a terrier who is becoming her service dog and will make them ineligible to stay at a shelter, West said. West has signed up for FEMA assistance and is waiting for the agency to assess the damage to the house she rented.

“I know there are more people worse than us, but you don’t know you’re going to be homeless,” West said. “You never think about it. You never think something like this is going to happen to you until you’re there. And then all of a sudden it hits you in the face, ‘Oh my God, it’ is real, it is in fact an event.’ It’s never happened to me before, and I’m sure for a lot of other people it hasn’t happened either, but for me it’s just devastating.

She added: “I’ve never been put in a position before where I’ve had to worry about where I’m going to live or where I’m going to go.”

West’s landlord Veronica Young, who lives next door to the mother and daughter, said she had no flood insurance for either home. She rented from West and Gay for nearly two years. The two properties span about 20 acres and at least two feet of water has accumulated in his home, Young said.

Ray, the housing expert, said Florida has a strong Affordable Housing Trust Fund that has been used to rebuild communities and in particular to provide affordable homes and rental units in communities hit hard by disasters.

“We’re going to have to think about how these homes are built so they can withstand storms and weather hazards,” Ray said.

Florida will also need to have a diverse housing stock that includes options for the lowest paid workers “and rebuild in the safest and most resilient way possible and in the safest and most resilient places possible,” she said.

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