FEMA Won’t Foot The Hotel Bill For Hurricane Maria Evacuees Any Longer
Freddie Agrait entered into the Ramada Inn in Kissimmee before the rest of the team of case managers from the Hispanic Federation of Florida. A Hurricane Maria evacuee and tech start-up owner, Agrait transformed the motel’s sparse activity room into a pop-up center for housing and cash resources. Over 60 families from Puerto Rico have been living in the Ramada Inn and in neighboring hotels on the outskirts of Central Florida’s tourist industry.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance program has been covering the costs of hotel rooms for families impacted by Hurricane Maria.
After numerous deadline extensions ruled by U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman, the program ended on September 13 leaving 308 families in Florida to find alternative housing solutions.
“We’ve been able to help over 60 percent of the families that have come to us for help,” said Betsy Franceschaini, Senior State Director for the Hispanic Federation of Florida. “The majority of the families left are elderly, disabled, or single mothers.”
While the remaining families are facing additional difficulties to becoming stabilized due to medical conditions and lack of child care, the biggest hurdle has been trying to find affordable housing.
“There’s just no units. No vacancies in Central Florida,” said Gladys Cook, technical adviser for Florida’s Housing Coalition. “It’s a crisis. I guess you have to call it.”
In a statement, Governor Rick Scott’s office said “since 2011, Florida has invested more than $1 billion to make Florida’s affordable housing program among the best in the nation.”
Florida has received criticism for aggregating funds from the state’s affordable housing trust fund known as the Sadowski fund to fill holes in state budget. A 2017 report from the Florida Housing Coalition claims that 33 percent of the fund’s budget has been reallocated into the general revenue budget over the past 25 years.
With his clients working low-income jobs and dipping into savings, Agrait has been scouring Central Florida for affordable units. He located three complexes in Ocala–an hour and a half commute from Kissimmee.
A non-profit working with the Hispanic Federation, Vamos4PR, said the distance and fear of not being able to find a new job in a rural area will push families to use their cash assistance to pay for another month in the hotels.