For months, Patrice Johnson has felt like she was working two full-time jobs: one at a chicken-processing plant, where she earns $13.50 an hour, and another chasing around Lumberton trying to snag an affordable place for her and her young son and nephew to live.
They had a house not far from downtown, but Hurricane Matthew dropped a tree on the roof in October. They stayed for a couple of weeks hoping the landlord would close up the hole, then moved into a motel for a month, which was as long as FEMA would pay the bill. After that, they went to whichever motel would give Johnson the best price. Even the cheapest took most of what she makes each week.
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Recently, Johnson and the children had moved in with a friend who had one room at a boarding house, where they slept on the floor.
Tuesday, she got a lead on a rental house and Wednesday, before somebody else could grab it, she signed a $500-a-month lease. That night, she lay on a pallet on the floor and tried not to think about the air conditioning that didn’t work, the dead electrical outlets, the lack of a refrigerator and stove, one exterior door that had been repaired after a break-in and another that lets in a wide slice of daylight where it should be snug against the frame.
“It shouldn’t be this hard just to find a decent place,” Johnson said, fanning herself with a copy of her lease in her unfurnished living room. “There is just not enough affordable housing here.”
Social service organizations say that in much of Eastern North Carolina, there was a shortage of affordable rental housing – by definition, costing a third or less of a family’s earnings – long before Hurricane Matthew hit. The storm, which did $1.5 billion worth of damage in the state, was especially hard on low-cost housing, which often is in flood plains. In many communities, renters still are scrambling for places to live.
House after house after house, just sitting here, molding. Nobody can live in them, and nobody is doing anything to fix them.
Veronica McNeill, pastor of a Lumberton church
The state is working out the details of a program that would provide low-interest loans, with part of the principal forgivable, for eligible landlords who serve low-income tenants. But the program was relying on $63.7 million from the federal government, which was part of a $900 million disaster funding request. Last week, the Trump administration replied, offering $6.1 million, less than 1 percent of Gov. Roy Cooper’s request.
After the storm, 81,499 North Carolina households registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, 30,595 of which were renters, according to FEMA records.
Little help from FEMA for renters
FEMA, the nation’s lead disaster-response agency, provides relatively small grants to renters for emergency items and has spent millions of dollars housing rental families in motel rooms while they searched for more permanent places to live. But FEMA, which offers more extensive help to homeowners, has no authority or funding to repair or rebuild rental housing damaged in a disaster. Housing advocates and families say landlords have been slow to begin repairs themselves. Very few had flood insurance on their rental properties, and some say they don’t have the money to rip out drywall and flooring, rewire a house and replace appliances and heating and cooling systems that sat in filthy floodwaters for days.
Faith-based disaster-relief groups, which will donate countless hours of labor and materials to the recovery effort, generally do not work on rental properties. The federal Small Business Administration has a low-interest loan program to which landlords can apply, but many landlords say their rental income is not enough to meet the terms of the loans. Others don’t want to take on debt for what amounts to a supplemental retirement income.
Burlester Campbell, a member of the Robeson County Board of Commissioners, is one of those who refuses to ask for a loan. Campbell retired from a graphic packaging company in 2009 and now owns 10 rental properties around Lumberton. Three of his properties were hit by the flooding, including a three-bedroom 1950s-era house on Nevada Avenue, on the south side of town where the Lumber River rolled through an opening in an earthen berm.
Campbell, who is 70, says he is not interested in borrowing money to repair the houses.
“And leave that for my family to have to pay off after I’m gone?” he said. “No.”
Lumberton is the largest city in Robeson County, which has ranked as one of the poorest counties in North Carolina for decades and where the unemployment rate is consistently higher than the state average. Before the storm, Campbell said all 10 of his houses were occupied, but not one tenant had a job. All were on Social Security disability, which local social service workers say ranges from $700 to $750 per month. According to census data, more than 34 percent of the county’s population was in poverty from 2011 to 2015.
And this is where Hurricane Matthew did its worst. In Robeson County, 18,546 households registered with FEMA, the most of any of the 49 counties that were declared disasters after the storm. Of those, 6,744 were renters, some of them paying $50 or $100 per month to live in public housing. At least 300 units in five developments owned by the Lumberton Housing Authority were hit by the storm. Those with minor damage have been reoccupied. It’s unclear when the rest will be repaired.
The governor had included a request for $15.2 million to repair flood-damaged public housing in the package that was essentially denied last week.
Campbell said he believes the government should have a grant program for landlords. Although renting houses is a business, in a low-income community such as Lumberton, providing low-income housing is a service, Campbell said. He has begun work on two of his properties that were damaged, doing the work a little at a time as he can afford it. He planned to put a “For Rent” sign in the yard of the Nevada Avenue house by the weekend.
Check for mold
Veronica McNeill pastors a church in Lumberton and does outreach work beyond her congregation. Since the flood, she said, she has tried to help find housing for several families displaced by the water and is frustrated by the pace at which rental housing is coming back on the market.
“Look at this: house after house after house, just sitting here, molding,” she said during a tour of south and west Lumberton, the areas of the city hit the hardest. “Nobody can live in them, and nobody is doing anything to fix them.”
We all need our own place that we call home, that when we walk into it in the evening, that’s our safe place.
Dawn Gavasci, a program manager for Robeson County Department of Social Services
McNeill says her work with tenants tells her that many landlords whose properties were flooded are waiting to see if they can get buyouts through FEMA’s hazard mitigation program, which works with local governments and willing property owners to permanently remove homes from flood-prone areas and prevent future losses. Other landlords, she said, have done cosmetic repairs and put flooded houses back on the market, putting renters at risk for respiratory problems later.
“You walk in and you can smell the mold,” she said.
The Robeson County Department of Social Services tells the people it helps to relocate to check for mold and other obvious problems in any rental property they consider, but Dawn Gavasci, a program manager, said the department doesn’t inspect housing and local inspectors are tied up with houses that are being repaired and rebuilt since the storm.
After the flood, the county began providing money for deposits and one or two months’ rent for residents who could show that they could cover their own costs once they got situated. When county money ran out in March, the state provided funds from last year’s disaster recovery bill to keep the assistance going. The $200 million that the legislature appropriated was to provide assistance to communities affected by the hurricane as well as tropical storms and the wildfires in the mountains.
That’s how Patrice Johnson and her boys got off her friend’s floor and into a rambling house. She’s grateful for the help, but worries whether the neighborhood is safe for her son, who is 8, and nephew, who is 11.
“I know my story is not the worst,” said Johnson. She said she knows people who move like vagabonds between the homes of their relatives and friends, some who have slept in their cars or camped out in abandoned, flooded-out buildings.
For a while, said Harry Jhala, owner of the EconoLodge in town, people were breaking into his flooded-out motel and staying in second-floor rooms with no electricity or running water. When someone started a fire in the building a couple of weeks ago, he said, he stopped people from sneaking in.
Gavasci, at the county social services office, knows it’s hard for some of her neighbors.
“It’s not a secret that we are one of the poorer counties in the state and we had a homeless population before the storm. We don’t want to see that increase,” she said. “We all need our own place that we call home, that when we walk into it in the evening, that’s our safe place, where we have the things that make us comfortable and where we can have our family around.
“Every family deserves that.”