One day after the deadline to move out, the final stragglers were solemnly packing up their cars, filling them with whatever belongings could fit inside. The rest — couches, microwaves, carpets, and other furniture — were left abandoned in piles outside the red brick, single-story homes. Blue tarps covered most of the roofs and doorways were sealed off as clean-up crews began their work.
Some 700 tenants of the Market North affordable housing apartment complex in Wilmington, North Carolina were given one week’s notice to leave their homes after black mold was discovered in the wake of Hurricane Florence. Residents were able to push the deadline back one more week, but the entire complex was vacated by October 22.
A second wave of displaced people are finding themselves newly homeless, months after Florence hit the state. Beginning at the end of September, at least six apartment complexes in New Hanover County have issued notices to the majority, or all, of their residents to vacate. Long after the floodwaters receded, thousands of people have had to pack their bags and leave.
With much of the temporary housing — rental apartments, Airbnb, or hotels — already full from the initial impact of Florence, finding a new place to stay in Wilmington is a challenge. Some may stay with family while others will be forced to to look further away for a place to live.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is often one of the first places people turn for disaster assistance. But, as John Mills, a FEMA spokesperson who has been based in North Carolina since just before Florence struck, told ThinkProgress, “FEMA money does not solve the issue of the shortage of available housing.”
“People may need to relocate,” Mills said. “That is one of the challenges that a lot of survivors have. They have ties to the community, they have jobs, they have family members there, and large disasters with significant flooding and major damage create long-term recovery challenges for communities.”
The first housing complex to order residents to move out was The Glen; less than two weeks after Florence hit, management told nearly 1,000 people that their leases were terminated “because of water damage, mold, leaking roofs and asbestos that was not exposed prior to walls and sheetrock torn apart as a direct result of the hurricane.” The complex shuttered on October 6.
New Providence Park was next. On September 26, management sent letters to 350 tenants stating that due to damage from Hurricane Florence, “we must terminate your tenancy effective immediately.” Residents were told the termination was authorized “under the natural disaster clause” in their leases. Power across the five apartment buildings was set to turn off that afternoon.
Then came the Clear Run apartment complex, which notified residents on October 1 that they had to be out within a week due to flooding damage. Then it was The Reserve at Forest Hill, and then Market North.
The notices have continued into November. Just this week, two months after the storm and a week before Thanksgiving, a sixth complex, Jervay Apartments, was also told to partially vacate.
“The commonality that they have is that they only gave them days to get out,” Annie Anthony, chief executive of the Cape Fear Volunteer Center, told ThinkProgress. The organization helped affected Wilmington residents pack up their homes and find storage units.
“I mean, we’ve just had a hurricane, the town isn’t even functioning, people aren’t even able to get all the way back,” Anthony said.
Among the group of apartments that issued notices to vacate the property are at least four low-income housing complexes. And while having to pack up and find a new home in less than a week is a challenge for anyone, finding alternate affordable housing in a hurricane-hit town is exceptionally difficult for those forced to leave The Glen, The Reserve, Jervay Apartments, and Market North.
On top of immediate concerns regarding where all of these people will now live and the cost involved, there is a looming, unanswered question: How long it will be before they can return home — if at all?
An emerging pattern
The number of apartment evictions in the aftermath of severe storms has been slowly rising in recent years. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there were reports of low-income tenants in Mississippi and Louisiana facing a “wave of evictions.” After Superstorm Sandy in 2012, some 80,000 tenants were served eviction notices by the New York Housing Authority just days after the storm hit.
Then last year, after Hurricane Harvey, dozens of survivors returned home only to find eviction notices on their doors. Now thousands of people in North Carolina are facing the same situation, in addition to hundreds of Florida residents in the wake of Hurricane Michael.
For aid workers, however, it’s still a new, emerging challenge to address. And as climate change continues to make hurricanes more intense and destructive, it’s likely a housing crisis will follow many major storms to come.
“I had never heard of it, and I had never been trained in it,” said Anthony, who has years of experience coordinating volunteer efforts in response to disasters, including 9/11. “Is it because the storms are stronger? Is it because the buildings are older than past storms?”
While other apartment complexes were only partially vacated, The Glen’s announcement was particularly shocking because the entire complex was condemned — everything had to be torn down. Its residents included many senior citizens, chronically ill people, and some who had lived there for 30 years and had no intention of ever moving.
“These people were stymied,” said Anthony. “They didn’t even know how to proceed.”
The management company gave residents their security deposits back and some of their rent upon keys being returned. Representatives from FEMA were there to help, as was the Red Cross, which brought food and gave $200 to each person. It “doesn’t sound like much, but it was something,” said Anthony.
Anthony set up a tent in the parking lot at the nearby Little Cesar’s, still closed after Florence, and helped arrange U-Hauls and find storage for people’s belongings. “It was hot, and it was a lot of work, but it went well,” she said. “But then Market North got the word.”
Known as HUD housing, Market North is entirely subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Reserve and Jervay Apartments also had a portion of apartments contracted with HUD.
Market North residents, who are mostly young, poor, and black, were told it would be at least six months before they could move back in, but they had to take everything with them.
Residents got $500 upon signing a note that they acknowledged they were told to leave, and another $500 after turning in their keys. “But that’s all,” said Anthony.
“You can’t rent anything here [in Wilmington] at less than $1,100 for an apartment,” she continued. Market North’s subsidized rents, however, ranged anywhere from $5 to $500 a month. “So they were going to be in a pickle.”
Meanwhile, storage prices were rising as more apartment complexes assessed storm damages. A month had passed since the storm hit. Most residents had returned to school and work, leaving far fewer people giving their time and money to help those who were still struggling.
“People were moving on with their lives,” Anthony said. “There was disaster fatigue; they just wanted things back to normal.”
Not to mention the nation’s attention was already directed at another storm: Hurricane Michael made landfall on October 11, capping off a destructive late hurricane season. But for Anthony, the busy, 14-hour days “weren’t going away.”
Despite receiving little assistance, Anthony tried to help Market North residents in whatever way she could. “There’s moms with kids that are homeless, there are people in wheelchairs that are homeless, they don’t have anywhere to go,” she said. So, one of the first things she told people to do was see the Red Cross about getting $200.
“But the Red Cross called me and said, ‘we’re not at that point yet with these people’,” Anthony said. “They didn’t say they weren’t going to give it to them, they said they weren’t at that point.”
Anthony began to get frustrated. It wasn’t just money people needed — they needed food, supplies, and chaplains to assist people. Finally, two chaplains with the Red Cross were sent over to Market North; they brought water and a box of Mickey Mouse toys.
“They were great,” said Anthony. But then the phone rang. According to Anthony, the chaplains “were told [by their supervisors] they had to leave the premises, that they couldn’t leave anything behind.” This included the Mickey Mouse toys.
The chaplains weren’t able to explain why they had to leave. “They picked up all their stuff and they left. And I was pissed,” Anthony said.
“Why are these people not worthy of the large donations that this country has given to be given to the Florence victims, why can’t they tap into that?” she asked. “That made me so mad.”
All of this happened just days before the deadline to move out.
“Big disasters like Hurricane Florence create more needs than any one organization can meet on its own,” the American Red Cross said in a statement to ThinkProgress. Regarding Market North specifically, it confirmed no financial assistance was provided by the Red Cross to residents, but said that moving supplies, water, and snacks were distributed.
“Unfortunately, there was a misunderstanding at Market North when several spiritual care volunteers were reassigned unexpectedly,” the statement said. “However, this situation was corrected.”
Since the hurricane hit, FEMA’s Disaster Survivor Assistance teams have been on the ground in North Carolina to help people register for federal disaster assistance — including getting cash to cover rent for at least two months.
According to FEMA spokesperson Mills, the agency has visited at least 15 different apartment complexes where people needed help applying for such assistance. Some of these include complexes where residents were told to vacate, while others were instances of damage or displacement during the initial days of the storm.
In New Hanover County alone, where Florence made landfall near Wilmington, 2,400 households have received FEMA rental assistance totaling $4.6 million, according to Mills.
For now, FEMA is the main point-agency for those seeking disaster assistance.
So for those in HUD housing, it’s FEMA residents must turn to first — unless FEMA issues a mission assignment requiring HUD to establish temporary disaster housing assistance, which it hasn’t in the case of Florence.
“You may not think so but these are still early days,” Brian Sullivan, a spokesperson for HUD, told ThinkProgress. “For Florence, we haven’t even got past the response phase.”
It likely will be months before budgets are appropriated and HUD steps in. Only then does recovery begin in the agency’s eyes. But, said Sullivan, regardless of where assistance comes from, residents in HUD subsidized housing “have an absolute right to return” once the property is rehabilitated.
In an effort to to help residents in the meantime, the management at Market North gave everyone the option to relocate to its other properties in towns outside of Wilmington that accepted Section 8 housing. It also offered help to find other Section 8 housing options beyond its managed properties.
The management company says it worked closely with elected officials “at every level of government to brief them on our situation and are in constant contact with all of them,” according to a statement provided to ThinkProgress. It has also coordinated with FEMA to ensure residents had help with the federal assistance application process.
And while Mills said the time between registering and receiving money can move quickly, it helps to have advance warnings regarding where people may be affected — whether that’s where a storm will hit or which apartment complex is next.
“Unfortunately FEMA hasn’t had a lot of notice,” said Mills. “In some cases, we learned people were being displaced from apartment complexes only because we had people in those neighborhoods going door to door. And at that point we immediately began helping people register for assistance.”
In the meantime, uncertainty reigns. No one can say for sure how many months will pass before the mold is gone, roofs are repaired, and everyone can return home.
And skepticism is rampant. From politicians to nonprofit workers, several people told ThinkProgress they expect some apartments might be turned into luxury condominiums instead. With The Glen being torn down entirely — its page no longer appears on the management company’s website — several people said they would not be surprised if the land is redeveloped.
“I don’t have any hard evidence, but there’s a lot of speculation that the owners of these apartment complexes are using this as an excuse to get the affordable housing people out so they can upgrade their facility and charge more rent,” Marcia Morgan, who unsuccessfully ran as the Democratic candidate for North Carolina’s house district 9, told ThinkProgress.
This was echoed by Courtney Patterson, a local organizer with the North Carolina Hurricane Relief Effort and Community Rapid Response Network. “There is a fear that there’s more to that than actually what people are really telling [you],” he said. The fear, according to Patterson, is that developers will build more expensive homes for people looking to retire near the coast.
The housing contrast is already stark in Wilmington. Right next door to Market North, for instance, is a luxury condo complex featuring street names like Lancelot Lane and Excalibur Way.
“One of the things it points out is that we just don’t have enough affordable housing,” said Morgan of a theme that emerged after Florence where existing issues were exacerbated.
“Would affordable housing have prevented anything here? No, it wouldn’t,” she continued. “But now people across the gamut of living situations are forced to find an alternate place to live, and we don’t have adequate [housing] for our everyday basis, much less an emergency like this.”
For those living at Market North, the company has said the complex will remain affordable housing. And people may actually return to improved, safer homes as a result.
“Residents should rest assured that their unit remains theirs — it will not be given away or have its rent increased,” Market North management said in a statement to ThinkProgress. “We are looking forward to the day when we can help them move back in just as much as they are.”
Visiting the empty Market North complex the day after residents had to be out, clean-up workers in neon yellow vests told ThinkProgress it would “take a long time” to fix all the apartments and get rid of the mold. Maybe three or four months.
One woman who had returned to collect her mail told ThinkProgress she expected it would be six months before they could move back. Anthony, however, thinks it’ll be more like eight or 10.