Courtney Ryan is still living in a hotel.
In the six months since Hurricane Ida’s floodwaters devastated the region, her baby boy has had his first Thanksgiving, first Christmas, and first birthday at the Hammock Inn in Exton. Her older son, who has special needs, has struggled with being in a confined hotel room. And, like others who lost their homes in the storm, Ryan and her boyfriend haven’t been able to find anywhere to live.
The family has a Section 8 housing voucher for up to $1,460 in monthly rent, but most homes they see in the Downingtown area are $2,000 to $3,000. So the family is still in the hotel room funded by Chester County — with the clock ticking on the voucher, which expires March 21.
“It’s depressing. It really is,” Ryan said this week, starting to cry as she talked about the first year of her baby’s life.
As the six-month anniversary of the Sept. 2 storm approaches, hundreds of people whose homes were damaged or destroyed by the record-breaking floods are still piecing their lives back together.
Of the 302 households put up in hotels by Montgomery and Chester Counties, 182 have found housing or returned to their repaired homes. The remaining 120 have no inhabitable home to return to. And that number doesn’t include displaced families who aren’t staying in the county-funded hotels.
The situation also raises broader questions about American disaster relief in the climate change era, with extreme weather events becoming increasingly common and more people being displaced every year. Residents affected by Ida said they’re still slogging through the bureaucratic process for federal assistance or have received little financial aid. Both counties set up the hotel programs after the storm hit, largely on the fly, and officials said the federal government should provide more assistance with temporary housing.
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Most of the properties destroyed by Ida’s flooding were affordable housing units in low-income areas. Now, amid a shortage of low-cost housing, the residents can’t find anywhere to live within their budgets.
“I feel like I’m stuck,” said Jennifer Sexton, who has been living at a King of Prussia hotel with her children, 17 and 10, since September. “I feel like I’m in a hole and I can’t get out of it. And it breaks my heart, because I’m trying.”
The situation has become so dire that Chester County is publicly calling for landlords to offer affordable housing for the victims. And Montgomery County officials have asked caseworkers to ensure every family still in a hotel has a plan for housing by the end of February — though not all will reach that goal.
“We’ve been asking, asking, asking” landlords to offer more affordable housing, but many are trying to recoup money lost during the pandemic, said Dolores Colligan, Chester County’s director of community development. To help guarantee the renters are reliable, the county is assuring landlords that flood victims have case managers and county assistance.
“They’re being cautious. You can’t blame people for doing that, but we need some help,” Colligan said. “We need some folks to just say, ‘Yep, we’ll give it a chance and we’ll work with you.’”
For many families, the search is complicated by school, work, or transportation. Ryan and her boyfriend are priced out of Downingtown, but leaving will mean changing school districts and moving their 11-year-old son out of the special-needs program that he’s been in since first grade.
Meanwhile, living in a hotel brings its own trauma: families stuck in a confined space, with no kitchen, few of their possessions, and little stability.
“It’s hard,” said Virginia Tharp of Coatesville, who was in a Chester County-funded room in the Exton hotel with her five children from September to early February. “There’s still a lot of families in there struggling.”
Recovery out of reach
Even for the dozens of displaced families who have found housing or gone home, struggles persist — needing clothes, kitchen supplies, or household items; having lost cars; going back and forth with FEMA.
Tharp, 47, moved her children out of the Exton hotel and into a $1,750-a-month Coatesville rental on Feb. 3, with the help of a Section 8 voucher. But she still feels like she’s in survival mode, and her kids have had a hard time adjusting back to regular life.
“This is going to take a long time for people to recover,” said Barbara O’Malley, Montgomery County’s chief operating officer, who said case managers continue working with victims after they find housing. “People’s lives were turned upside down.”
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Montgomery County has spent about $3.5 million to support Ida victims. Officials expect to get most of that reimbursed by FEMA. In total, its emergency housing program has put up more than 500 people from 217 households since the storm.
The county’s case managers have created “an exit plan” for most of the 211 residents still in hotels, but some will have to stay past Feb. 28, said O’Malley.
Chester County is using part of its $15 million allocation of the American Rescue Plan funds to pay for the hotels; the county had spent a little more than $400,000 as of early January, Colligan said. Officials will keep drawing from the fund until the remaining 38 victims are out of the Exton hotel, she said.
‘I’m just beside myself’
Even the county hotel aid hasn’t worked out for everyone. A few residents have been paying out of pocket for their rooms, despite not being able to afford it.
Montgomery County officials acknowledged that some people have been removed from the county’s program because of reported noncompliance with hotel or program rules. Those residents were referred to the county’s housing crisis response system, a spokesperson said.
Laura Caroluzzi, whose partner of 31 years, Jack, died in their Bridgeport home during the flood, said she was uncomfortable at a Collegeville hotel paid for by the county because of poor conditions. So she went to another hotel, which means running up her credit card bill paying monthly for a room.
She’s still trying to get money from FEMA, she said, for her cars and property. Her godmother is helping her look for a house, but the market is difficult. She’s unsure how long she can put the hotel room on credit.
“I’m just beside myself,” she said.
Sexton, of King of Prussia, also sought the county’s aid but was told she’d have to move to the Collegeville hotel, she said. Her teenage son was diagnosed with thyroid cancer just after the storm, and the hotel was too far from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and her job. So she, too, is paying out of pocket.
The stress is so acute that Sexton and her children often have no appetite for the microwave meals she cooks in their hotel room. She worries about the effect of the trauma on her son’s treatment, and she’s scared her daughter could bring COVID-19 back to the small room while her son is immunocompromised.
A single mother who works as a cleaner, Sexton, 44, hasn’t been able to find a rental close to the $1,750 she was paying for her three-bedroom before the flood.
“It’s been awful. I barely sleep,” she said. “I wish there was another person or agency or something that was able to help me fight. Because I feel like it’s a fight, and it’s never-ending.”