Hurricane Ida destroyed affordable rental units. Hundreds of families still can’t find new ones.
In a fierce competition for housing, lower income residents, especially renters, may face fewer options.
Nearly every day, after Amy Hylenski gets off work and her 6-year-old son, J.J., arrives home from school, they hop in the car and go apartment-hunting.
They sometimes drive for hours around Montgomery County — through their hometown of Bridgeport, down through Conshohocken, and over into King of Prussia. When she gets home, she scours the internet for listings.
But she can’t find available units. And if she does, the rent is usually far more than what she can afford.
The Hylenskis are among hundreds of people across the Philadelphia region who remain displaced more than three months after Hurricane Ida ravaged the area. The Hylenskis’ Bridgeport rental unit was ruined, as were most of their belongings.
The storm wiped out dozens of rental units in some of the county’s more affordable areas, like Bridgeport and Norristown. Now, amid an expensive, competitive housing market and a low stock of affordable housing, displaced homeowners and renters are vying for the same vacancies, and families are struggling to find new places to live.
The result is that hundreds of people are still living in hotels funded by their counties. Many more are sleeping on friends’ couches or living with relatives. Those lucky enough to find a new rental said that it was an exhausting process and that they are paying considerably more than they were before Ida.
In Montgomery County, 342 residents from 152 households are living in county-funded hotels, a county spokesperson said. Eighty-five of the households are renters, the spokesperson said, while 23 are homeowners and 44 are unknown.
In Chester County, 71 people from 30 households — all renters — are living in hotels.
A shortage of affordable housing is not new or unique to the Philadelphia suburbs, but the flooding exacerbated the crisis in Montgomery County, said Kayleigh Silver, administrator of the county’s Office of Housing and Community Development.
“The pandemic and the hurricane was really a one-two punch of exacerbating the drivers into housing instability and homelessness,” Silver said.
“Vacancy rates for affordable units are the lowest they’ve been in the county for 20 years,” she said.
In a fierce competition for housing, lower-income residents, especially renters, who often lack flood insurance and may not qualify for post-disaster financial assistance, may face fewer options.
“If you’re already in a precarious situation financially ... that narrow slice of availability can get erased,” said Jennifer Trivedi, a faculty member at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center.
Brandi Altenor, her three children — ages 12, 15, and 21 — and their two dogs and cat finally found a new rental last week after living in hotels since early September.
The Bridgeport family lost nearly everything in the flood, including both of their cars. Altenor, 46, took two days off work to recover from the disaster. Then her employer let her go, telling Altenor “she had too much on her plate,” she said.
She initially held out hope that her landlord would fix up the four-bedroom rental they’d lived in for nearly three years at $1,500 per month. But he decided to sell it, and she needed a new place.
“I couldn’t get to a job without a car, and I couldn’t apply to any rental places without a job,” 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 for the last month. With no kitchen, and only a mini fridge and microwave, they’ve eaten mostly fast-food or frozen microwavable meals.
“We haven’t had hot meals, but we’ve learned to survive,” she said.
She used money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a GoFundMe fund-raiser to buy a new car, and after six weeks of hunting she landed a job at a dental office.
She searched the internet for a place to live, but everything was either too expensive or in poor condition, she said. And being unemployed after losing so much drained her savings, making it even more difficult to afford upfront rental costs, like first and last month’s rent. She applied for three places, and was denied each time. A three-bedroom apartment in Conshohocken wanted $2,000 per month, with three months’ rent upfront.
“Even if I wasn’t in a flood and didn’t lose my job and didn’t lose my car, I think that’s a lot of money to put up,” she said.
Finally, she signed a lease in West Conshohocken last week. It’s not the place of her dreams — the stairs are falling apart, rooms are missing fire alarms, the blinds are ripped — but, she said, “I feel like I’m under the wire and I need to take what I need to take.”
Melissa Galvan and her two teenage children lived in a hotel for eight weeks, before finding a new place in late October. The two-bedroom apartment costs $600 more per month than her previous three-bedroom rowhouse in Bridgeport. They couldn’t all fit in the space, so one of her children is temporarily living with their dad.
“It broke up our family,” she said.
Displaced families don’t want to relocate to other areas for many reasons, including proximity to their jobs, support systems, and keeping their children in the Upper Merion School District.
Many residents said that most of the units available in the area are new, luxury apartments in King of Prussia, which can run for upward of $2,700 per month for a two-bedroom space. Galvan said that when she inquired, residents had to prove their monthly income was at least three times the monthly rent.
“I can’t imagine there was anyone living where I was living who made that,” she said. “We would have all owned homes if we did.”
For renters 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 a portion of their rent — the search is even more daunting. Landlords must opt into participating in the voucher program, and a unit’s rent must be below a certain amount. If a renter finds an apartment that’s not already participating, the landlord can opt in, but it’s not necessarily common.
Hylenski, 38, qualifies for a voucher, and despite her daily search, landlords often don’t call back or tell her they don’t accept the voucher. She, J.J., and her adult son have been cramming into her mom’s apartment since September, and although they’re grateful, they’re desperate for their own space.
Across Montgomery County, 32 units eligible for Section 8 vouchers were destroyed by the flood, said Joel Johnson, executive director of the Montgomery County Housing Authority. And although this is just 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 voucher-using families trying to resettle there.
Charity Richardson, 20, has faced the same issue as Hylenski: “Nobody wants to accept Section 8,” she said.
Richardson had moved into Norristown’s Riverside Apartments just a week before the flood destroyed her one-bedroom unit, which rented at about $950 per month. The 90-unit complex, which offered some of the most affordable rents in the area, was deemed uninhabitable and will be demolished.
Richardson has moved back in with her mother and brother in Norristown. She scours the internet nearly every day for a new place, but almost every time she calls a landlord, she said, there’s no answer, or she is denied.
She gets her hopes up about a unit every now and then, she said, but so far, nothing has worked out. On a recent Sunday, she leaned on her mom, Bernita, and brother, Keith, inside their church. All they can do now, she said, is pray.