Live in a house with a caved-in ceiling or pick up and move on a moment’s notice. That was the choice Theresa Wheeler and her family of five faced when they returned to Cape Coral after Hurricane Ian and found their home in disarray.
At first they thought they could make it work. They had just renewed their lease and weren’t prepared to start over somewhere else. Then suddenly, the decision was made for them.
Her landlord told her the lease was canceled due to the damages from the storm and she had seven days to move. The owner of the home, Robert Duffek, declined comment.
Wheeler is one of thousands tenants across Southwest Florida who were displaced after Hurricane Ian. Advocates say the storm has exacerbated an existing affordable housing crisis and is driving low and middle income families out of the region.
“So many homes were destroyed so there’s fewer places available,” said Elizabeth Radi from the Collier County Tenants Union. There also has been a surge in demand from homeowners who lost their homes and disaster relief workers flooding the rental market.
Nearly 14,000 Southwest Florida renters are receiving assistance from Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to agency officials. More than 1,120 households are being housed in hotels under the agency’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance program. FEMA estimates that 357 rental homes were totally destroyed in the hurricane.
“We’re going to see landlords take advantage of this by pushing the rents up,” she said.
Before the storm, Wheeler was paying $2,000 a month for a 3-bedroom home.
“There’s no such thing as $2,000 a month here anymore,” she said. “And anything we can find has a wait list of 100 people.”
Other tenants, like Trevis Martin of Fort Myers, have been allowed to remain in their rentals while they wait for their landlords to make repairs. Martin, his wife, their 3-year-old daughter and his brother-in-law all have been staying in a portable camper parked in the driveway of their Fort Myers rental for more than a month.
He said the house sustained serious water damage and is covered in mold, so they go inside only if they need to use the kitchen or bathroom. Living in the camper has been especially difficult for his daughter.
”She has autism so routines are really important for her,” he said.
Martin said he has considered moving but hasn’t been able to find anything in his price range that can accommodate his two dogs. He doesn’t know how long it will take his landlord to make repairs or if the home will be safe once the work is done.
“We don’t want to move back in if there’s still mold and problems, but what are we supposed to do?” Martin said. “There’s nowhere for us to go.”
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The owner of the home, Robert Hart, said repairs should be completed by next week and he plans to have someone come inspect for mold.
Florida law allows tenants to exit a lease early if the property is uninhabitable. But if a tenant wants to stay in a damaged home, “it’s very difficult to force a landlord to make repairs,” said Andrew Baynai, executive director of the Lee County Legal Aid Society.
“There should be more clear guidelines from the Legislature on a landlord’s duty to repair things, how long they can take and what happens if they don’t,” he said.
Some tenants may be able to receive money from the FEMA to pay for temporary housing. But Sarah Saadian, senior vice president of public policy for the National Low Income Housing Coalition said that the FEMA application system is cumbersome and difficult for low-income renters to navigate. As a result, many do not get the help they need.
“This puts more pressure on those households that were already struggling before the disaster and makes it hard for vulnerable people to get back on their feet.”
She noted that in 2017, following Hurricane Harvey, homelessness in Houston went up by 18%.
FEMA is providing more travel trailers and manufactured housing for more than 3,000 households across Florida after Hurricane Ian. The agency has run into trouble trying to build this housing though because many of the sites for the trailers still are littered with storm debris, the News Service of Florida reported.
In a press release, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said the agency is working to eliminate red tape by expanding acceptable forms of documents that applicants can use to prove residency or homeownership.
As a result, “11,600 more renters and owners who survived Hurricane Ian have received more than $140 million in assistance that they otherwise would not have been eligible to receive,” according to the release.
Displaced tenants can apply for rental assistance at DisasterAssistance.gov or call the FEMA help line at 800-621-3362.
They must submit pre-disaster and current household income status, copies of pre-disaster lease, utility bills, renter’s insurance, a copy of the current lease or rental agreement signed by the tenant and the landlord and rental receipts, canceled checks or money orders showing the rental assistance was used to pay for housing expenses.
For some, leaving Southwest Florida altogether seems like the only viable option.
Wheeler owns a legal paperwork service and her husband does custom woodworking. Neither has been able to find work since the storm. After spending weeks sleeping in her mom’s living room, they are looking into buying a home in Tennessee.
“Almost everyone I know is getting out because they can’t afford to stay,” she said. “Too many people lost too much.”
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Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage
FEMA: Floridians hurt by Ian can now apply for FEMA assistance. Here’s how.
HOW RELIABLE ARE HURRICANE MODELS? Hurricane Ian gave us some answers.
POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.
MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.