Pushing Back Against Disaster Capitalism in Florida
urricane Ian blew through Southwest Florida as a Category 4 hurricane in September 2022, inflicting more than $112 billion in damages. A National Hurricane Center report called it the costliest hurricane in Florida’s history, and the third-costliest ever in the United States.
Many in the hardest-hit region of Lee County continue to bear that cost, not just from the physical damage, but at the hands of property owners and developers.
One of those affected is Lorna Washington, a former Fort Myers resident who lived in her 4-bedroom, 3-bathroom rental for two years before she was forced to leave.
“After the storm, since there wasn’t any damage to the property, the owner decided he was going to put it up for sale because of the shortage of housing units from the storm,” she says. “He listed it at a very high price, feeling that people would be desperate and pay that price.”
The house, which she lived in with her two children and two grandchildren and was renting for $2,200, was purchased in 2014 for only $187,000. When it was put on the market in 2023, the asking price was $550,000, despite the fact that no repairs or upgrades had been made in years. The owner, Washington says, lived in New Jersey.
“First he told us we could stay until he sold it, then he changed his mind and told us we had to leave in four days,” she says. “That was the first time in my entire life that I had ever been without a place to stay, and I didn’t know where I was going to lay my head—not just me, but my family, my kids, and my grandkids.”
Rental rates were already on the rise before the storm, she says. According to a 2022 Shimberg Center for Housing Studies report, 28% of Lee County renters are low-income or paying at least 40% of their income on rent. Compounding that is the pandemic bump: From July 2020 to July 2022, 221,000 residents moved to Florida from other states, the largest gain of residents from within the U.S. since 2005. For many, arriving from notoriously expensive states like California or New York, more affordable homes were the driving factor.
“When they came here and saw these lower prices, they gobbled up the real estate and drove the prices up,” Washington says. “To them it’s a bargain, but to locals, we were priced out of the market. We were not accustomed to these prices.”
After the storm, rental rates skyrocketed even further. Though she had been approved for a smaller 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom rental, the landlord wanted $2,700 a month. Just two years prior, a similar property she rented cost only $1,300. After spending a week living between a hotel and an Airbnb, Washington finally found a rental home for $1,800 in Cape Coral.
Hers is one of many stories of how development is reshaping the Lee County landscape. My own parents, whose home in Cape Coral was flooded by record storm surge during the storm, were forced to relocate to St. Petersburg while they cleaned out their house and eventually put it on the market as-is. It sold to buyers from Miami whose primary residence is a 5-bedroom, 4-bathroom house worth over $1 million. Because of high interest rates, most buyers fit this profile: investors looking to flip for a profit.
For coastal areas that were totally wiped out, like Fort Myers Beach, developers are seizing the opportunity to drive up prices even further. Most of the post-Ian properties will cost $1 million or more, according to sources quoted by Business Observer; meanwhile, fewer than a third of the low- or middle-income residents who used to live there have been able to return.
If this sounds familiar, it is. After the fires in Maui that destroyed nearly 1,900 homes, developers started reaching out to residents and offering to buy their land, hoping they’d be desperate enough to sell after the long wait for government assistance and insurance payouts. According to residents interviewed by USA Today, many are holding their ground, resisting contributing to the affordable housing crisis the island had already been facing due to a rise in short-term rentals and vacation homes.
In Lee County, faced with similar pressure, locals are finding ways to fight back. Washington is a member of Mt. Hermon Church in Fort Myers, one of the founding members of Lee Interfaith for Empowerment (LIFE), an organization made up of 14 congregations across the county who hold public officials accountable for creating policies that address the community’s needs. For three years, LIFE fought to get the city of Fort Myers, where most of their members are located, to implement an affordable housing trust fund. In January of 2022, they finally won.
Though it took many subsequent months of follow-up to see movement with the trust fund, that accountability is starting to pay off. As of August 1, the fund had a balance of just over $3.7 million. About $520,000 of the total has been spent on developments, including units set aside for low- to moderate-income families. And, as of February 2023, $400,000 of the affordable housing trust fund is being set aside for a rental assistance program.
“Prior to the storm we had some pushback, and then after the hurricane we had less pushback because now the homelessness and the housing shortage is staring everybody in the face,” Washington says.
Families or individuals who apply can receive up to $600 in monthly assistance, depending on where their income falls, with the property owner or manager receiving a subsidy as incentive to participate in the program. But Washington feels it’s not enough.
While operating her cleaning and repair business that services rental properties, she’s heard a lot of stories of people who received the rental vouchers, but found that there were no rentals available or that landlords—knowing they could still ask for above-market rents—weren’t accepting the vouchers. Further, the requirements to rent even with a voucher are steep; would-be renters still need to make three times the rent and pay three-months’ rent up front—an often impossible ask for people needing assistance with rent to begin with.
“What we have been pushing for the city to do is to get the land and the developers to actually build those types of units, and that will alleviate some of the issues—to build more units that will take these types of renters,” Washington says.
In September 2023 LIFE showed up to a Fort Myers city council meeting to make their voice heard in a debate over the fate of a building that once housed the News-Press newspaper. Rather than sell the building to developers hoping to use the property to build luxury condos, the city chose Miami-based company Tre Bel Housing, whose proposal promised rent-restricted housing for essential workers.
Over 40 members from LIFE showed up to that meeting, with several speaking publicly to remind the council of the housing crisis. Councilwoman Teresa Watkins Brown, when declaring that she was going to vote for the affordable housing, said, “I’m listening to my community.”
Other organizations are taking matters into their own hands, rather than waiting on the government to do it. The Immokalee Fair Housing Alliance (IFHA) was formed to address the housing needs of farmworkers in Immokalee, an agricultural community in neighboring Collier County. The alliance is building 128 hurricane-resistant affordable rental units for farmworkers and low-income families, many of whom currently pay up to 70% of their income to live in 50-year-old trailers with limited access to toilets and infested with mice and mold. After Hurricane Irma in 2017, many of those trailers became uninhabitable due to severe wind damage.
According to Carleton Cleveland, board member of the IFHA, the groups who came together to form the coalition after Irma did so in order to create something longer lasting than disaster relief could provide. In addition to the rental units, IFHA is building a community center, athletic fields, and a community garden.
“For the most vulnerable communities, like ours here in Immokalee, we have to look for solutions together to protect against the effects of climate change,” says Lupe Gonzalo, a former farmworker and current staff member for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a member organization of the IFHA.
After Hurricane Ian, because the Immokalee community wasn’t as hard-hit as nearby Lee County, the CIW stepped in and became a resource distribution hub, also using their radio station to provide information to the community both during and after the hurricane.
“We have a history of organizing not only with workers but also with consumers and the public,” Gonzalo says. “We’ve created a really good connection to the community and a sense of trust in the community, and that’s what gives us the confidence to communicate with the community in times of crisis.”
The CIW has been organizing Immokalee workers for 30 years, winning protections like mandatory heat breaks to keep workers safe when doing outdoor work.
Housing security is another protection that can keep communities safe during a crisis. For some coastal communities, that might mean seeking government grants to relocate away from the coast. For others, it might mean giving the locals a fighting chance against developers seeking to profit off of devastating loss, like the moratorium on sales of damaged property proposed by the governor of Hawai‘i. Whatever this aid looks like, the problem is too big for one community to solve on its own.
“Humanity has borrowed a large debt from nature for decades of unsustainable exploitation, and the time to pay has come,” Gonzalo says. “At this point, we can’t let communities solve their problems alone, because climate change isn’t only affecting communities like ours, it’s a global problem. It’s a problem that governments should be responding to.”
Elena Novak is a nonbinary organizer and writer from Florida. Their articles have been published on the Huffpost blog, Everyday Feminism, and in newspapers in Florida and North Carolina. After furthering their political education at Clark University in Worcester, they began a three-year stint as an organizer helping lead behavioral health and environmental campaigns in Pinellas County, Florida. In their free time, they love hoarding books from the library and cuddling their cat, Luna. They are a member of the National Writers Union. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org
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