Hurricane Ida destroyed affordable rental housing in Pennsylvania, so many families are still living in hotels


Almost every day, after Amy Hylensky quits work and her 12-year-old son JJ comes home from school, they get in the car and go looking for an apartment.

They sometimes drive for hours in Montgomery County – through their hometown of Bridgeport, through Conshohocken and into the King of Prussia. When she gets home, she scours the Internet looking for advertisements.

But she cannot find the available units. And if she does, the rent is usually way more than she can afford.

The Hylenskis are among hundreds of people in the Philadelphia area who remain displaced more than three months after Hurricane Ida ravaged the area. The Hylenskis’ rental housing in Bridgeport was in ruins, as was most of their property.

The storm destroyed dozens of rental housing units in some of the county’s most affordable areas, such as Bridgeport and Norristown. Today, amid an expensive and competitive housing market and a low supply of affordable housing, displaced landlords and tenants compete for the same vacant homes, and families struggle to find new places to live. .

The result is that hundreds of people still live in hotels funded by their counties. Many more sleep on friends’ sofas or live with relatives. Those who were lucky enough to find a new rental said it was an exhausting process and they are paying much more than before Ida.

In Montgomery County, 342 residents from 152 households live in county-funded hotels, a county spokesperson said. Eighty-five of the households are renters, the spokesperson said, while 23 are owners and 44 are unknown.

In Chester County, 71 people from 30 households – all tenants – live in hotels.

A shortage of affordable housing is not new or unique to the Philadelphia suburbs, but the flooding has exacerbated the crisis in Montgomery County, said Kayleigh Silver, administrator of the county’s office for housing and community development.

“The pandemic and the hurricane really had a double whammy of exacerbating the engines towards housing instability and homelessness,” Silver said.

“Affordable housing vacancy rates are the lowest they have been in the county in 20 years,” she said.

In fierce competition for housing, low-income residents, especially renters, who often do not have flood insurance and may not be eligible for financial assistance after the disaster, may have fewer options.

“If you’re already in dire financial straits… that narrow slice of availability can be wiped out,” said Jennifer Trivedi, a faculty member at the University of Delaware’s Center for Disaster Research.

Brandi Altenor, her three children – ages 12, 15 and 21 – and their two dogs and cats finally found a new rental last week after living in hotels since early September.

The Bridgeport family lost almost everything in the flood, including their two cars. Altenor, 46, took two days off to recover from the disaster. Then her employer let her go, telling Altenor “she had too much on her plate,” she said.

Initially, she hoped her landlord would fix the four-bedroom rental they had lived in for nearly three years at $ 1,500 a month. But he decided to sell it, and she needed a new place.

“I couldn’t find work without a car and I couldn’t apply to rental locations without work,” she said.

The family moved between hotels – most paid for by the county – before landing at the Hyatt in King of Prussia, where they lived last month. With no kitchen, and only a mini-fridge and microwave, they mostly ate fast food or frozen microwave meals.

“We didn’t have hot meals, but we learned to survive,” she said.

She used money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a GoFundMe fundraiser to buy a new car, and after six weeks of hunting, she landed a job in a dental office.

She searched the internet for a place to live, but everything was either too expensive or in bad shape, she said. And being unemployed after losing so much has depleted your savings, making it even more difficult to pay upfront rental costs, like first and last month’s rent. She applied for three places, and was turned down each time. A three-bedroom apartment in Conshohocken wanted $ 2,000 a month, with three months rent up front.

“Even though I wasn’t in a flood and lost my job and my car, I think it’s a lot of money to put in,” she said.

Finally, she signed a lease at West Conshohocken last week. This isn’t the place of her dreams – the stairs are crumbling, the rooms lack fire alarms, the blinds are torn – but, she said, “I feel like I am under the wire and I have to take what I need to take. “

Melissa Galvan and her two teenagers lived in a hotel for eight weeks, before finding new accommodation at the end of October. The two-bedroom apartment costs $ 600 more per month than its previous three-bedroom townhouse in Bridgeport. They couldn’t all fit in space, so one of her children is temporarily living with her father.

“It shattered our family,” she said.

Displaced families are unwilling to relocate to other areas for many reasons, including proximity to their work, support systems, and keeping their children in the Upper Merion School District.

Many residents said most of the units available in the area are new luxury apartments in King of Prussia, which can cost up to $ 2,700 per month for a two-bedroom space. Galvan said when she inquired, residents had to prove that their monthly income was at least three times the monthly rent.

“I can’t imagine there was anyone living where I lived who did this,” she said. “We would all have owned houses if we did.”

For tenants who receive assistance from the Housing Choice Voucher program, also known as Section 8 – a government assistance program that helps low and moderate income families pay part of their rent – the research is even more intimidating. Landlords must choose to participate in the voucher program and the rent for a unit must be less than a certain amount. If a tenant finds an apartment that isn’t already participating, the landlord can opt for, but that’s not necessarily common.

Hylenski, 38, is entitled to a voucher, and despite her daily research, owners often don’t call back or tell her they don’t accept the voucher. She, JJ, and her adult son have been crowding into his mother’s apartment since September, and although they are grateful, they are in desperate need of their own space.

In Montgomery County, 32 units eligible for Section 8 vouchers were destroyed by the flooding, said Joel Johnson, executive director of the Montgomery County Housing Authority. And while this is only a small percentage of the County’s 525 voucher-eligible units, most of those destroyed were in Bridgeport and Norristown, he said, making it a significant loss. for families using vouchers trying to relocate there.

Charity Richardson, 20, faced the same problem as Hylenski: “No one wants to accept Section 8,” she said.

Richardson had moved into the Riverside Apartments in Norristown just a week before flooding destroyed his one-bedroom apartment, which was renting for around $ 950 a month. The 90-unit complex, which offered some of the most affordable rents in the area, was deemed uninhabitable and will be demolished.

Richardson returned to live with his mother and brother in Norristown. She scours the internet almost every day looking for a new place, but almost every time she calls an owner she says there is no answer or she is refused.

She has hopes for a unit every now and then, she said, but so far nothing has worked. One recent Sunday, she leaned on her mother, Bernita, and brother, Keith, inside their church. All they can do now, she said, is pray.

About Gene Schafer

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