ORANGE COUNTY, Florida – “Goodbye, game over.”
That’s what Windolin Garcia said when she learned that she and her family had been evicted from their Windermere apartment in early November after losing a month’s rent.
What would you like to know
- Windolin Garcia and his family were evicted from their Windermere apartment earlier this month
- Rising rents and few vacant homes are preventing Garcia and others from finding accommodation
- Even before the pandemic, there was a severe shortage of affordable rental housing in the United States
- RELATED: Minorities Still Face Obstacles on American Dream Path
The eviction came as a shock to Garcia, as she and her landlord had already agreed to a payment plan to repay the balance. Including late fees and attorney fees, Garcia and her husband were expected to pay installments totaling $ 2,341.69 as of Dec. 15, according to Orange County court records detailing the stipulation.
But confusion arose between the court, the apartment community and Garcia, according to court records, and a judge ruled against Garcia. It didn’t matter that the Deputy Warden had already told Garcia the case would be dismissed – or that Garcia ultimately paid the full amount she owed the court office, plus a $ 42.62 clerk fee.
âWhen the sheriff posts this on your door, you have 24 hours,â Garcia said, recalling how panicked she felt the moment she realized they were losing their home. âI heard the sound of an alarm. I felt like I was in a building on fire. And I must have exhausted myself quickly – otherwise, I was going to be consumed by fire.
Now she and her husband, Gerardo ChÃ¡vez, live in a 10 x 20 storage unit in western Orange County. Since the eviction, they have traveled back and forth between a few hotels with their three children, returning to pick up essential items in storage as needed. It’s not easy to find specific items in the depths of the storage unit, where furniture, appliances, and boxes of family belongings are literally stacked 10 feet high.
Garcia doesn’t like coming here. She broke down in tears one recent afternoon, watching Chavez climb the mountain of items to extract an air fryer so they can cook in their hotel room.
âReality is choking me,â Garcia said. “Every time I see this … it reminds me of how real it is.”
“There is no balance”
Nationally, the cost of rent is rising rapidly and Orlando is no exception. In fact, between last September and this year, single-detached home rental growth in Orlando exceeded the national average of 10.2%, according to a recent report from CoreLogic, a real estate analysis company. Median rent prices rose 12.3% in the Orlando area year over year, placing it ninth in the report’s list of top 20 metropolitan areas for rental growth.
Much of the problem is supply and demand, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic as many people turn to remote work and migrate to places like Florida. At the same time, many people do not move, fearing that they will not find anything else at an affordable price. This hesitation adds more pressure to the already tight housing market, according to Chris Bright, owner of Best Orlando Property Management.
âIf you’ve been in a place for five, six years, you’re at the price of five or six years ago,â Bright said. âAnd if you try to look for something today, you’ll be priced probably 30, 40% higher. People at this point aren’t moving, so for all those new people trying to move out, they don’t. simply no option. â
Indeed, between the second and third quarters of 2021, Orlando’s rental vacancy rate fell by almost half, according to census data. Only 5.5% of rental units in the metropolitan area are available. At the same time, many downtown Floridians recently reached out to Spectrum News about rent increases, with some monthly rates reaching hundreds of dollars.
Even before the pandemic, there was a severe shortage of affordable rental housing in the United States. The country’s deficit of around 3.8 million affordable housing units is a conservative estimate, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. In Florida, the situation is particularly dire, with only enough affordable housing available for 28% of the state’s poorest residents.
Yet the housing shortage does not only affect those who suffer from extreme poverty. Many middle-income working families cannot afford housing costs.
âOur wages are not on steroids, but the rent is,â Garcia said. âSo there is no game here. And as long as there is no balance, there will always be this problem.
An auto mechanic by training, ChÃ¡vez began working in an Amazon warehouse when the family moved to Orlando last year. They arrived in March, just before the pandemic hit, and no one was hiring, Garcia said. Today, ChÃ¡vez still works for Amazon full time, earning $ 15 an hour. He says he drives an hour and a half each way to get to work.
âThe rent is outrageous for people earning minimum wage,â Garcia said. “With the price of gasoline, tolls, food … it’s just not realistic.”
Garcia was also working full time as a phlebotomist, but said she quit her last job at the end of last year, fearing exposing her toddler to coronavirus. She remembers her breaking point: the time she drew blood from a man who had a fever and said he currently had COVID-19.
Now Garcia is preparing to start his own traveling phlebotomy business. But it takes time and money, two resources the family currently lacks. Right now, every penny goes towards basic necessities, and every free moment is spent calling agency after agency, looking for help.
Right before the deportation, ChÃ¡vez said he obtained his commercial driver’s license after completing training paid for by Amazon. He was eager to increase his salary and provide for his family. This was before the eviction, however, and now other priorities have emerged.
“I needed the unity of humans”
After learning that they had lost the eviction case, Garcia turned to NextDoor for help.
âThe next thing I could think of was letting people know,â Garcia said.
While a few people responded with critical comments, Garcia said that overall she was blown away by the number of strangers who shared positive comments and offered to help her family.
âThe amount of love and response was overwhelming and amazing – I never anticipated it,â Garcia said. “My plan was just to reach outâ¦ I needed the unity of humans and others to contact me, and even to pray with me, and that would be enough for me.”
But Garcia had more than that: love and support, she said, as well as very generous donations. Windermere mother Tami Furlin paid for the family to stay in a hotel for a week after reading Garcia’s update on how the family spent a night in their car.
âIt just pulled on my heartstrings,â Furlin said. âI didn’t want the kids to sleep in their cars, especially since they were in school.
Furlin and Garcia never met, but Furlin felt obligated to help the family in any way she could. She said she has a personal connection to people who are homeless: her own brother, who suffers from schizophrenia, is currently homeless in another state and repeatedly refuses offers of help. When he had a daughter 15 years ago, Furlin and her husband adopted her as their own.
âThe idea of ââsomeone being homeless really goes to my heart, especially when it comes to kids,â Furlin said. “I can’t help everyone, but in this particular situation I could step in and do something, so that’s what I did.”
Furlin said she wanted to help Garcia and her family “get over the hump” until they found a stable place to live. She urges others not to indulge in the struggles of strangers.
âPlease don’t turn a blind eye to situations where you can do something,â Furlin said. “I realize that I won’t be able to fix someone’s problem, but I can help ease their problem and burden a bit, even if it’s only for a day or a week.”
After calling for weeks, Garcia said she finally found a lead on an affordable unit, but wouldn’t be available for a few months. In the meantime, she gets as creative as she can with recipes for air fryers in the hotel room – and dreams of a day when she can cook dinner in a real kitchen again.
Molly Duerig is a member of the Report for America body that covers affordable housing for Spectrum News 13. Report for America is a national, non-profit service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to cover undercover issues.