Miguel Romero proudly calls himself a “Florida boy.”
He loves the Sunshine State’s warm weather. He’s lived in the same neighborhood in Lee County, along Florida’s southwestern coast, for most of his life. It’s where he got his first job, at a Wendy’s, when he was 16. It’s where he drove his first car, a white Buick Century that he bought from his godfather. It’s where he met his partner, Nicole, during senior year of high school.
Together, they now share a 1-year-old daughter, Emma – a name inspired by one of Nicole’s favorite shows, “Friends.” Money was always tight, but life on Linda Loma Drive was good, Romero says.
The family had big plans for this year: they were going to visit an annual Halloween attraction in Orlando. For the first time, Romero was hoping to see his favorite stand-up comedian live later this month. They were hoping to set up their first at-home aquarium in the large fish tank Romero recently purchased.
Someday soon, the couple hoped to get married here, too. But Hurricane Ian changed their plans.
Linda Loma Drive, a short street just 10 minutes away from the island of Fort Myers Beach, is home to predominantly lower- and working-class families, some of them immigrants, whose homes were flooded by the powerful storm in late September.
Like Romero’s family, most of his neighbors are longtime tenants who spent days after the hurricane cleaning their rental homes and piling on their driveways the moldy furniture, electrical devices and cherished memories that the floodwaters destroyed.
“It was so surreal,” Romero, 26, said on an early October afternoon, as he walked around his empty apartment. “It took us hours and hours to clean all this up and … the big trash trucks with the claws, they just come in, they pick that stuff up like it’s nothing.”
“Years’ worth of hard work gone in a matter of five minutes,” he said.
That wasn’t all they lost. Days after the storm, Romero says his landlord announced they had less than two weeks to move out so that repairs from the flood damage could begin. And he offered no guarantee they’d be able to move back in after those were finished, Romero says. The news came as a gut punch, shattering the image of the life Romero had envisioned for the months and years ahead.
Romero used his savings to rent a storage unit while he frantically looked for a new apartment. But in an area that was already deep in a housing crisis before the hurricane, that quickly proved next to impossible, and his family was forced to look to a different state.
“I’m just sad, heartbroken and hurt,” he said. “Mentally, I’m not in a good place, but I also can’t afford to let my family see that, especially my little girl.”
He wasn’t the only one that was pushed out after the storm. Tenants in several communities across the state’s three hardest-hit counties received orders to vacate their homes, according to reports compiled by the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC).
Low-income households, which typically receive the “least assistance and fewest protections where recovering,” were those most impacted, the coalition said last month. In states like Florida, where available housing is already scarce, landlords have used natural disasters as opportunities to push those tenants out to fetch higher prices, says Sarah Saadian, the coalition’s senior vice president of public policy and field organizing.
“What happens is that households that are already struggling are pushed deeper into housing instability,” Saadian said. “And the worst cases result in homelessness.”
Nearly two months since the storm ripped through the state, many Floridians who were forced to leave their homes have had to start their lives from scratch, with little money and help in doing so.
‘Tired of being in this tunnel’
For Romero’s family, family trips and plans for new hobbies and shows are now out of reach. Instead, they’re planning to use all their savings for their big move to Indiana on November 19.
“People who spent years saving … in the midst of and in response to an emergency like this when they’re displaced, that money is gone,” said Sheena Rolle, senior director of strategy for local grassroots advocacy group Florida Rising.
Romero said he’s dreading the day of the move. But staying in Florida was simply not an option: the financial assistance the family received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency was not nearly enough to help pay the bills or cover housing, he says. Rent in Indiana is nearly a third of what it is in Florida and family members who already live there told Romero he will likely be able to get a job at a factory.
“You can only take in so much canned goods, so much water, so much clothes,” Romero said. “What people really need is money. Money to get back on our feet.”
For others, what comes next is a question unanswered.
A 24-year-old mother of three who lived in the same neighborhood says her family was given just days to move out of their home after Ian hit. The woman did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation by her previous landlord, who other family members are also renting from.
The woman tells CNN she moved to the neighborhood with her spouse and their children nearly three years ago – a special milestone that marked the first time the family lived on its own.
In that short time, the family made their house a home, filling it with memories including “Toy Story” and “Minions” movie nights, spaghetti and meatball preparations for when dad returned from work and bedtime rituals for the three young children – 1- and 6-year-old sons and a 2-year-old daughter.
The family evacuated ahead of Hurricane Ian. When they returned, everything was ruined, drenched by more than five feet of floodwater that poured inside the home. They were at least able to save some clothes, the woman says. And then, they found out her spouse was now unemployed after the Sanibel Island restaurant he worked in was decimated.
The woman tells CNN she called her landlord to ask for some more time past October 1 – their usual pay period for rent – while they worked to rearrange their savings. His response: they had two days to get everything out.
“I was crying,” she said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do. We didn’t know where we were going to go.” They have been staying with family since the eviction, the woman says, but that’s a temporary solution and they don’t know where they’ll be able to move to next.
In times of disaster, when local and state governments are often consumed by response efforts, it’s often more likely that some landlords will engage in illegal practices to push tenants out and tenants often don’t have access to legal counsel to fight back, says Saadian, with the NLIHC. That problem is exacerbated by challenges that have existed long before the storms hit, like a lack of renter protections and a lack of enforcement for the protections that do exist, Saadian says.
“The households that are going to be most harmed are those low-income renters who don’t have a lot of options for affordable places to live anyways,” Saadian said. “What we see in many cases is homelessness increases.”
In Houston, after years of declines in the homeless population, advocates recorded a 15% increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness in 2018, the year after Hurricane Harvey pummeled Texas, according to a report from the Coalition for the Homeless. There are still people this year who attribute their homelessness to that storm, the report says.
“Renters whose buildings got impacted or destroyed (in a disaster) have no recourse,” said Rolle, with Florida Rising. “They either must live through what would in any other situation be deemed unlivable conditions or they must flee.”
After disaster, a deadline to leave
On the street behind Romero’s old home, Melissa Harper says she also faces an approaching deadline to leave her house. The neighborhood quickly became a safe haven for Harper, offering a newfound stability after she spent more than a year experiencing homelessness during the Covid-19 pandemic. About a month before the storm hit, Harper moved in with her boyfriend and a good friend of his, a man who had been renting the single-story home for more than a decade.
Much like Romero’s family, the three of them spent the days after the storm cleaning out the destruction. And though most of their furniture and electric devices were gone, they felt hopeful they’d be able to continue living there, adding new pieces of furniture they found at donation drives or on the street.
Several weeks after the storm, their landlord gave them a December 1 deadline to leave, Harper says, adding she was informed he had plans to turn the home into an Airbnb.
“It’s put a lot of pressure on us and a lot of stress. We haven’t saved any money because we had to pay that rent,” she said. “I’m just taking it day by day.”
The latest rounds of evictions after Hurricane Ian highlight a dire need to add more protections for renters, including following disasters, and ensure they have access to housing and financial resources, both Rolle and Saadian tell CNN.
Rep. Val Demings, who last week lost to Sen. Marco Rubio in the election for the US Senate, introduced a bill in September to protect residents from evictions during and after disasters like hurricanes. The bill has been endorsed by organizations including the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the National Housing Law Project.
“At any moment, your life can change and your options are few, but the rules surrounding what you can and can’t do are many,” Rolle said. “Some of this is climate change, some of this is the Earth. A lot of it is bad leadership, bad policy that ignores people at the bottom rung of the ladder.”
Romero hopes coverage of stories like his could bring about some change. The eviction – more than the storm itself – shifted their entire lives and futures. But he tries to remain hopeful about what life in Indiana will look like.
“It’s going to be hard, I mean hard. But I’m just ready for new beginnings,” he said. “Even if we don’t like it, maybe someday we can come back.”