Permanent housing remains out of reach for many low-income residents two years after Hurricane Michael.
Katherine Leskovac, 62, has been staying in a camper parked in a mostly empty lot on Sherman Avenue in Panama City. “Ever since Hurricane Michael, I’ve been living here,” she said. But she says she wouldn’t really call it living. “You can never get comfortable.”
On Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018, the Category 5 storm’s 160 mph winds tore through much of Bay County — sparing Panama City Beach the worst damage, but leaving the rest of the county’s communities in shambles.
Before it made landfall, Leskovac lived at Pinehurst Garden Apartments, a low-income housing complex in Lynn Haven. “I nearly got buried in my apartment,” she said. “It’s hard to talk about.”
With those apartments still under construction, Leskovac says she’s considering buying the camper that she’s currently living in rent-free and moving it to her son’s property in Southport. “If they will quote me a good price, I can have it hauled out.”
Ninety-eight households in Bay County still occupy rent-free trailers through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Direct Temporary Housing Assistance Program, said David Mace, a FEMA spokesperson.
The agency gave those residents another four months to stay in the mobile units after county officials requested an extension to the program’s Oct. 11 expiration date. The new deadline is Feb. 11, 2021. After that date, residents who remain in the trailers must pay a $1,200 - $2,400 monthly penalty fee, Mace said. And FEMA will start collecting rent payments between $800 - $1,200 in January.
“We understand that the housing market is still a difficult one,” Mace said. “With COVID-19 impacting people’s employment that’s making finding housing even more difficult.“
After the storm, 925 families lived in FEMA trailers across the region, with most of those units stationed in Bay County, he said. Now, there are only 107 across Bay, Jackson, Gulf and Calhoun Counties. “Our case management contractor is working diligently with all of the households in these units to find them a permanent housing solution,” Mace said. “We’re very pleased that we’ve managed to move that number downward.”
Many families in the county who are not living in FEMA trailers still lack permanent housing. Bay District Schools counted 3,500 students who were homeless - lacking a place to spend the night that's "fixed, regular and adequate" - at the end of last school year, the district’s communications director Sharon Michalik wrote in an email.
Two years after the hurricane devastated much of the county, recently rebuilt apartment complexes are leasing, and local real estate listings showcase newly renovated homes for sale. But for many low-income residents, much of the new housing stock is out of their price range, said Donna Pilson, executive director of Rebuild Bay County.
“When they go out to find new housing in those new apartment complexes or even rental homes, the rent is much higher than what they were paying prior to the storm because the demand for rental units has increased,” Pilson said. “It’s not just the lack of units, but it’s the increase in cost of the existing units.”
And the affordable housing stock in Panama City hasn’t yet fully recovered.
Hundreds of subsidized housing units still haven’t been rebuilt. Demolition work is wrapping up at two Panama City Housing Authority complexes - Massalina Memorial Homes and Fletcher Black Memorial Homes - which are both slated for reconstruction. All of the public housing units are filled and the housing authority’s waitlist is closed, according to its website.
There are at least a couple of other low-income housing complexes under construction in the area, including Macedonia Garden apartments and Pinehurst Garden apartments.
“Our housing complexes took a major hit during the storm. It takes a long time for those to come back. Several of those have still not come back yet,” Pilson said. “That’s where you had some affordable housing. Those housing complexes still being offline is a major impact.”
Since Hurricane Michael, Angela Small has been going back and forth between her two daughters’ homes to sleep and take a shower. “It’s something to be just living out of bags,” Small said in an interview a few months before the storm’s first anniversary.
Two years after the hurricane, she say’s nothing has changed. Small, a student at Gulf Coast State College, says she’s struggling to find housing that she can afford.
“I’m only working part-time,” she said. “For just a one-bedroom you’re looking at nine hundred dollars a month. There is no public housing available in this city.”