Before Hurricane Ian caused billions of dollars in damage in Florida, Alaura Miller considered herself a part of the lower middle class.
Now, she says, she's among the poor.
The mobile home Miller rented for $1,000 a month and shared with her 23-year-old son in the inland community of Arcadia was so severely damaged it will have to be demolished.
"We really don't know what direction we're going — whether we go out of state or stay," she said, adding that without rental assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency she will be forced to move to Texas to live with one of her daughters.
Miller, 60, a retired barber, is among Floridians on low or fixed incomes struggling to find affordable housing in one of the nation's most popular and expensive states to live.
"Florida came into this hurricane season already having a shortage of affordable housing, particularly for people who are working in service jobs and other lower wage jobs," said Anne Ray, a researcher at the University of Florida's Shimberg Center for Housing Studies.
"And so, people who have lost their homes are going to be competing with the people who are already trying to find affordable housing. It's a tough, tough situation."
Housing costs have climbed in recent years for renters and homeowners, Ray said.
"There have been really high accelerating rents in Florida, particularly over the past year," she said. "And wages haven't kept pace. So, the overall trend is this growing gap between what housing costs and what people can afford to pay based on their wages."
Miller was able to obtain a generator Tuesday and plans to stay in the back of her mobile home, which she said sustained less damage than the front of the house, until her landlord demolishes it.
"The kitchen and the two bedrooms are intact, but we're not going to be able to stay here long because he's [the landlord] going to have to demolish it," she said.
Miller said that between her meager savings and the money her son earns as a Winn-Dixie supermarket employee, the two can't afford a more costly rental. Arcadia is in one of the state's poorest counties.
People who are displaced from Arcadia would have a difficult time finding something similar elsewhere in the state, Ray said. The median sale price for a single-family home in Arcadia was $138,500 in the first half of 2021, compared to $324,900 for those statewide, according to data provided by the Shimberg Center at the University of Florida. Median gross rent, meaning rent and utilities, in Arcadia was $750 in 2020, compared to $1,218 in Florida.
Brenda West, 69, a retired respiratory therapy technician and widow, also paid $1,000 a month to rent a modest two-bedroom, one-bathroom home in Myakka City that was destroyed by Ian. West shared the home with her daughter, Gwendolyn Gay, who has multiple sclerosis and whom she cares for. Both women collect disability, West said. With limited resources and no family in Florida, the two have been staying at a shoddy motel in Bradenton that West has reserved through Friday.
"After that, I don't know where I'm going," she said Wednesday. "My resources is about to run out."
The pair can't go to a shelter because West said her daughter's multiple sclerosis prevents her from sleeping on a cot. Additionally, her daughter has a terrier that is in the process of becoming her service dog and will make them ineligible to stay in a shelter, West said. West has signed up for aid from FEMA and is waiting for the agency to assess the damage at the home she rented.
"I know there's more people worse than we are but you don't know that you're going to be homeless," West said. "You never think about that. You never think that something like this will happen to you until you're in it. And then all of a sudden it just hits you in the face, 'Oh my gosh, it's real, this is actually happening.' It never happened to me before. And I'm sure for a lot of other people it hasn't either, but to me, it is just devastating."
She added: "I've never been put in a position before where I've had to worry about where I'm going to live or where I'm going to go."
West's landlord, Veronica Young, who lives next door to the mother and daughter, said she had no flood insurance for either home. She has rented to West and Gay for nearly two years. Both properties sit on about 20 acres, and at least two feet of water accumulated in her home, Young said.
Ray, the housing expert, said Florida has a strong affordable housing trust fund that has been used to rebuild communities and in particular to provide affordable homes and rental units in communities that have been hard-hit by disasters.
"We're going to need to think about how that housing is built so that it's resilient to storms and climate risks," Ray said.
Florida will also need to have a diverse housing stock that includes options for lower paid workers "and to rebuild in the safest and most resilient way possible and in the safest, most resilient places possible," she said.