On May 10, Mary Flanders and her husband, Oscar Colbert, had to leave the DeLand home they’ve owned and live in for years.
They’re steadily employed — Colbert as a truck driver and Flanders as the owner of a cleaning business — but a 17-year-old loan Colbert thought he had paid off came back to haunt the family.
Together with their 12-year-old son, Stoney, they were forced to leave their home behind and find a new place to live.
They found rental housing much more expensive than it was even one year ago. Nowadays, renting a place to live in West Volusia will run you an average of roughly $1,900 per month. That’s, in many cases, before utilities, before groceries and rent.
Flanders struggled to find a rental property where she and her husband — with a household income of about $60,000 — could afford to pay. Plus, renters are asked for application fees and fees for a background check in addition to the first month of rent, the last month and a security deposit.
One of the places Flanders looked at, for example, cost $1,700 a month. If the security deposit is the same as a month’s rent — which it often is — renting that home would require $5,100 up front, in addition to multiple application fees of $40 or $50 a shot for a family looking at several possible rentals.
“Whatever’s going on in this economy isn’t letting us back out there,” Flanders told The Beacon.
For three weeks, Flanders and her family lived at the Quality Inn in Orange City to the tune of $90 a day. While that’s about $2,700 a month, the up-front fees weren’t required.
Just about anyone looking for housing can find themselves in similar straits. In Volusia County, nearly 50 percent of the population can be considered “the working poor,” or, as the United Way terms it, “ALICE” (asset limited, income constrained, employed).
For this chunk of the population, Volusia/Flagler Coalition for the Homeless Executive Director Jeff White said, paying $2,000 every month on rent isn’t possible.
“The price of gas is taking money out of people’s pockets for rent and utilities,” he said. “The cost of food, the inflation’s out of hand. Prices of rent follow suit.”
And it’s not just rentals, either. While a mortgage payment can often be cheaper than rent, even if people looking for housing can afford a down payment, the housing inventory is much more expensive than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“I do believe we’re going to see an increase in homelessness, because even families who are employed and are in housing right now, they’re being priced out of their housing,” White said. “There’s a lot of housing built around Volusia County, but it’s the housing that’s out of touch for the people.”
The Coalition for the Homeless has been helping people out of homelessness for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed things. More people were struggling, but more funds were available, too. From October 2020 through September 2021, for example, the Coalition helped 1,707 people get housing in Volusia and Flagler counties.
“Those are all coming to an end,” White said. “You’ve got a significant amount of money that was pumped into the economy with the impact of COVID that’s going to go away.”
White is intimately familiar with the money that flows in to help people get housing, too. The majority of the emergency solutions grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development goes through the Coalition first.
And that money has gone to good use, too. In Volusia County alone, from Oct. 1, 2020, through March 31, 2022, 868 people received rental assistance from rapid rehousing programs thanks to grants paid for by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act.
“That’s astronomical,” White said. “Almost 1,000 people who would have been homeless without that funding. That funding’s going away pretty soon, then what are we going to do?”
With so many families already living on the brink of potential homelessness, Family Renew Executive Director Tony Deobil said it’s long past time we reconsider how we think of homelessness.
Prejudices are standing in the way of enacting real change, he said.
“When I go out and talk with people, I’ll say this, ‘I want you to imagine a typical homeless person, whether it’s a family or a person. I want you to think about them and their characteristics,’” Deobil said. He hears a lot of the same: “They’re lazy, they’re dealing with drugs, they’re uneducated.”
Not so, he said.
“Here’s what studies have shown us. Only about 12 to 13 percent of people who are homeless are in those categories,” Deobil explained. “They’re you and me. They’re people who go to work every day, and all of a sudden something happens.”
Whether a plant shuts down, or someone unexpectedly loses their home, as in the case of Mary Flanders and her family, many Volusia County families are often not more than one or two paychecks away from homelessness.
At Family Renew, Deobil helps homeless families get into the organization’s transitional housing, where the average family stays for around six months before moving on to rent a place of their own.
Family Renew has 32 apartments across Volusia County — 14 in Holly Hill, 11 in Daytona Beach and seven in DeLand.
Unfortunately, with rental costs rising, making the transition from Family Renew’s housing to independence has gotten more difficult, Deobil explained.
“If I can’t move the families on if they’re ready, our solution is not as effective,” he said. “Affordable housing has become a critical issue for me.”
While some landlords have raised rents to deal with rising costs, others have found that their tenants are opting to stay in rental properties longer, and that means fewer homes are open to rent.
At Coalition for the Homeless, White has seen more landlords interested in working with his organization, but not near enough to house everyone in need. Selling new landlords on partnering with the Coalition for the Homeless isn’t easy, either, when a landlord can likely make more by renting to people who have more.
“The rents aren’t reasonable,” Whtie said, “and they’re not coming down.”
As pandemic-related stimulus payments and other federal money dry up, agencies that have worked hard to prevent a deluge of homelesness since 2020 will be fighting an uphill battle, White said.
“We’re going to have to really get smart about it,” he said. “See what other opportunities come down the pike, as well as not lose sight of looking for developers and agencies to delve into the affordable-housing arena.”
A happy ending of sorts
As for Mary Flanders and her family, things are looking up.
“We are a little more stable here,” she told The Beacon.
Nearly one month after her family lost their home, they signed a six-month lease on a two-bedroom home for $1,500 a month. The landlord was flexible, allowing the family to pay only their first month’s rent and a security deposit.
After three weeks of cramming her family in a motel room for $90 per-night, Flanders said she is hopeful the economy will be on her side in six months.
Many are out there still looking for a home, though. Whether they’re living on the street, on a friend’s couch or in a motel room, too many residents have been left in the lurch, and too many more are one crisis away from homelessness.
“To the credit of Volusia County, there’s more and more conversations going on,” Tony Deobil said. “The problem is, we don’t need conversations. We need somebody to step up and say, ‘I’m going to build this.’”
Where’s all the affordable housing?
Asked why there isn’t more affordable housing in Volusia County, Volusia/Flagler Coalition for the Homeless Executive Director Jeff White explained that it’s complicated.
For one, there are upfront costs before developers and nonprofit agencies can take advantage of grants that may be available for new construction of affordable housing.
“There’s a lot of groundwork that has to be done,” White said. “Is your project even doable? Is the city behind it? Is the infrastructure for the water and electricity there? Does it have to be redone or revised due to zoning?”
Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than just building homes.
Another organization that owns land that could potentially be used for affordable housing is Habitat for Humanity. The nonprofit owns a number of parcels in DeLand, but the lots aren’t big enough to accommodate houses that comply with the city’s building regulations.
Some of those regulations recently changed, but some rules, like the minimum square footage required for a single-family home still prevent housing from being built on lots the agency owns. The smallest house that can be built in DeLand is now 750 square feet, and in many zoning categories, even bigger houses are required.
Also, new single-family homes must have four off-street parking spaces, and that gobbles up more space on a small lot.
Executive Director Randy Jenkins, in a letter to The Beacon, said that the city’s changes just don’t cut it.
“The City Commission’s recent action does not make it easier to build on these lots,” he said.
There’s also the problem of NIMBY, or not in my backyard, mentalities, Family Renew Executive Director Tony Deobil told The Beacon.
He said he’s experienced pushback from residents and municipalities when he has advocated for building housing meant for formerly homeless or low-income families.
Deobil has seen opinions changing when it comes to some of those conversations, but it needs to go further, he said.