The thousands who evacuated can’t return and those who stayed, but lost their homes, have struggled to find new residences or ones that fit their price range.
PANAMA CITY — Hurricane Michael took Jessica Lyon’s apartment.
It uprooted her life.
For months she bounced around without a job, first living in a hotel with the help of federal aid before trying to move to Pensacola for something more permanent.
“But everyone was snatching places up,” Lyon said.
She later got a small, federally provided camper trailer in Panama City. A year after the historic storm, Lyon is still there, saving money in hopes of finding a permanent home in town. But with rental prices skyrocketing because of high demand and low supply, she’s not confident of her chances any time soon, particularly if she goes it alone.
“It is expensive now and that’s why I’ll probably be splitting rent with friends,” Lyon said.
A year has passed since the Category 5 hurricane gashed Bay County, leaving hundreds of crumpled homes and apartment complexes in its wake. Twelve months later, not much has changed for many residents. The thousands who evacuated can’t return and those who stayed, but lost their homes, have struggled to find new residences or ones that fit their price range.
But the housing crunch is about much more than the loss of homes. It has permeated nearly every aspect of life in the county, from the economy to tax revenue, education and population. A year later and the problem seems nearly as dire as it did in the early days after the storm. However, progress is being made, with developers launching new projects to restore the county’s housing stock and existing apartment complexes showing more signs of life by opening more units.
Meanwhile, area officials say they’re working on the issue, developing plans to bring more affordable housing while drawing in state and federal dollars to fund programs to help more people afford rentals and buy homes.
“The most acute impact on our community is our housing stock,” Mark McQueen, city manager of Panama City, said about the hurricane.
McQueen said the city has long had a problem of imbalanced housing — with around 70 percent of the community living in rental properties and 30 percent owning their homes. So when the storm took out several of the area’s apartment complexes, that created a more significant housing shortage than if the area had more balanced housing stock to begin with, he said.
According to recent Panama City Community Development data, the rental property losses have been huge and haven’t improved much in the past year.
The data showed that in August, out of the 8,384 total apartments in the county, only 3,837 were considered livable. And of those, just 27 were listed as available for rent.
Some of the apartment complexes also showed no new units would be open for another three to six months, with others stating repairs would take two years to complete.
“A majority of these complex units won’t be available until mid-2020 or late 2020,” said Michael Johnson, director of Community Development.
Johnson added that the Housing Authority alone lost 200 units and doesn’t plan to rebuild until next year.
And while those apartment complexes have been slow to open new units, the ones available have skyrocketed in price because of the high demand.
“They’ve doubled and almost tripled in some cases,” McQueen said of rental rates.
Still, renters have hardly suffered the housing struggle alone. Homeowners have faced their own issues in getting their houses repaired.
Homes can still be found with blue tarps over their roofs in the county. Some homeowners didn’t have insurance. Others who did found contractors scarce or had slow payouts from their insurers.
Another problem faced by an identified 2,000 property owners in Panama City has been clouded titles. McQueen said these properties in question have been generational, passing through families over the years, but not being properly recorded. Without clear history of title, these homeowners have been ineligible for federal aid or commercial loans.
“It means people are stuck,” McQueen said.
As for residents who did get aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the help has been massive and still ongoing a year later.
FEMA records show that as of Sept. 6, the agency devoted about $78.5 million to home repair and rental assistance in the county. FEMA was also still overseeing 541 households in its temporary housing program in the county as of Sept. 6, down from its peak 724 households.
Tasha Crawford and her five children have lived in a FEMA trailer in the city since March. She and her family were in their Springfield home when the storm hit.
“We didn’t feel the tree hit the house,” Crawford said as she held her 10-month-old son Isaiah. “Then we walked through the bedroom door and wondered why there was light in there.”
Crawford and her family tried to make do in their home until she went into labor with Isaiah and had to be airlifted to a hospital. FEMA put the family in a condo for a few months before the trailer arrived.
Currently, FEMA’s temporary housing program will only be available to residents through April of next year.
“They’re making us look for places,” Crawford said of FEMA. “I’ve done a lot of calling, but it’s been hard to find a place. But it’s been good living here.”
Solutions are coming
To help Crawford and many other residents, officials have been undertaking a variety of plans and programs to ease the housing crisis.
Johnson, who also manages all aspects of affordable ownership housing development for the county, said the current goal for the area is to help create 500 new homes by 2022, including 200 affordable rentals, 100 energy efficient homes, 100 affordable low-income homes and 100 houses for seniors of low income.
“We’re hoping to break ground on a lot of these this year,” Johnson said.
Johnson said there’s a variety of programs to help make the goal a reality.
For instance, the county recently got $65 million from the state’s Hurricane Housing Recovery Program to help residents with home repairs, home construction and property purchases to build affordable housing. The money can also help with home down payments and mortgage buy-downs.
But the $65 million is just a fraction of what the county is expected to receive. The federal government recently allocated $448 million for Hurricane Michael housing recovery projects. Since the county received the bulk of the damage from the storm, it’s expected to get at least 60 percent of those funds, Johnson said.
“We’ve got to get housing here so we can get workers back here,” Johnson said.
Tyndall housing restoration
Meanwhile, the largest single housing recovery project in the county is well underway at Tyndall Air Force Base, where the Category 5 hurricane totally destroyed 50 of the base’s 867 single-family homes and inflicted varying degrees of wind and water damage on the rest, for a total estimated loss of $250 million.
Balfour Beatty Investments, which has managed the base housing for more than 15 years under the federal Military Housing Privatization Initiative, has fielded a small army of contractors to renovate 584 existing homes found to be repairable, said Maureen Omrod, the company’s Senior Vice President for Marketing and Communications. Currently, between 150 to 200 contractors and subcontractors are on site each day, she said.
One of the larger real estate investment companies involved in military housing, Balfour Beatty has compiled one of the largest housing inventories in the nation. The company has constructed more than 15,000 new homes, renovated more than 28,000 homes and demolished another 25,000 units at military housing areas at 55 Army, Navy and Air Force installations nationwide. But Hurricane Michael posed
a challenge that surpassed the company’s previous experience, Omrod said.
“The Tyndall Air Force Base project is the single largest restoration effort we have undertaken,” Omrod said. “We have a very professional and dedicated team working on this effort to ensure our homes meet the quality and safety standards our residents expect.”
The company came under criticism from Senator Marco Rubio and Florida CFO Jimmy Patronis earlier this year for what they alleged as unacceptable delays in launching the recovery. However, Balfour Beatty officials said it was imperative first to remove storm debris from streets and yards, as well as shield damaged homes from further harm by moisture and mold, before actual reconstruction could
Further complicating matters was the multi-layered approvals process the company had to follow with its insurance adjusters, lenders and Department of Defense officials, she added.
The scope of the work at Tyndall goes well beyond storm repairs, Omrod said. It includes the demolition of another 233 homes that were slated for removal prior to Hurricane Michael, particularly those located in several older neighborhoods that lie under the flight path of the installation’s runways. In addition, the company plans to construct nine new homes, which will result in a new housing inventory of
593 homes when the work is finished.
Omrod said the first homes will be delivered in January 2020 and will be ready for occupancy soon after. The company anticipates delivering between 50 and 70 homes per month next year, which will return the housing to full occupation as early as September 2020.
“When tragedies like natural disasters occur, supporting our employees, residents and communities is always our top priority,” Omrod said.