Post Hurricane Ian Many People in Fort Meyers Still Living in Tents

People in Fort Myers, Fla., are scrambling to find housing after Hurricane Ian devastated the area in September, forcing some residents to camp in places where their homes once stood.

Source: WSJ | Published on January 26, 2023

Florida Cat Fund

People in Fort Myers, Fla., are scrambling to find housing after Hurricane Ian devastated the area in September, forcing some residents to camp in places where their homes once stood.

According to data firm CoStar Group Inc., the storm made landfall in southwest Florida, destroying 5,000 homes and severely damaging another 30,000. Many families who wanted to stay in the area were forced to seek temporary housing due to the destruction. They frequently compete with the construction workers who have swarmed the area to assist with the restoration efforts.

Many of those residents who were priced out of the rental market when prices in the area reached all-time highs have been forced to live with family members or in campers, trailers, or mobile homes.

Others are camped out in front of or on top of what remains of their property. Mark Garcia is living on the concrete slab where his property once stood in Fort Myers Beach.

His property is adorned with three small tents. According to the street association, sixteen of the 42 properties on the street, including Mr. Garcia’s house, were ripped out to the slab.

Mr. Garcia, 52, sleeps in a 5-by-8-foot camper that is barely big enough for him and his girlfriend to lie down in. “It’s essentially a queen bed on wheels,” he explained.

His father occasionally stays in one of the tents, which used to be his bedroom. One street over, a neighbor lets them plug an extension cord into their property to power their mini fridge and microwave.

On Thursday, Gov. Ron DeSantis visited the area and promised to provide trailers to those displaced by the storm. “We’ve probably got a couple thousand people right now who could use trailers,” he said during his stopover that day.

According to the Waller, Weeks, and Johnson Rental Index, rents in Cape Coral and Fort Myers have consistently ranked as the most overpriced of any U.S. city since the hurricane. Based on rental history, the index developed by Florida Atlantic University, Florida Gulf Coast University, and the University of Alabama determines the most overpriced rental markets in major U.S. metropolitan areas.

The index indicated that rents in the area were nearly 18% higher than they should have been in December. The average rent in the Cape Coral/Fort Myers area increased 14.8% year on year to $2,251.39 per month, despite the fact that rents in the rest of the country have begun to fall.

While other cities in the United States have struggled to meet the needs of rapidly growing populations, Fort Myers has been adding housing stock in an effort to meet the needs of one of the country’s fastest-growing metro areas. According to CoStar, nearly one-third of the area’s apartment units were built since 2020, and nearly half were built since 2010.

Even so, it was insufficient to meet the brisk demand. According to CoStar, rents in Fort Myers were up 27% year on year at their peak in the first quarter of 2022.

When Hurricane Harvey hit, Alejandro Orta, a contractor who specializes in cable network restoration following natural disasters, began looking for a place to stay for his crew on Airbnb Inc.

He said he found a modest two-story home in Cape Coral for $8,000 a month and mobilized 10 trucks, but the property owner wanted to cancel when they were halfway there. He had to pay an additional $2,000 to keep the reservation, totaling $10,000 to stay in a four-bedroom home with no electricity. He only stayed for a few days before leaving due to a contract disagreement.

“You expect to make a lot of money, so you make the sacrifice and pay what you have to in advance,” he explained.

Manuel Obando, another restoration contractor, spent more than $81,000 to house 150 men in a Hampton Inn near the Fort Myers airport for two weeks. He claimed that the only way to secure rooms was to pay a large lump sum in advance.

While he expressed gratitude for the hotel space, he also rented three other homes for as much as $700 per night, where he felt cheated.

“A lot of these homes didn’t have running water or electricity,” Mr. Obando explained.

Meanwhile, Mr. Garcia stated that he would like to rebuild his home in the same location. Even after collecting on his insurance, he won’t be able to afford to build a new home in Fort Myers Beach.

Mr. Garcia said his father, who lost his car in the storm, is about to have his license suspended because he chose not to insure his nonexistent car.

“They kick us when we’re down,” he explained.

Debbie White lives in a shed behind her father’s house, which flooded and is now completely gutted, on the same street. Her father lives in a camper out front and has stated that he will never leave. They haven’t started restoration work, and Fort Myers Beach, which is swamped with permit requests, has yet to grant them the necessary approvals.

Meanwhile, out-of-towners continue to flock to the area in search of retirement homes or rental properties. They will also require lodging while looking for a good deal.

Matt Kibbe flew from Pennsylvania to Cape Coral in mid-January and stayed in a hotel with his wife and two small children. He was looking for a waterfront property to rent out and enjoy for part of the year, preferably on a cul-de-sac.

“It could also be my retirement home,” Mr. Kibbe said. “I’m not going to get any younger.”