EDITOR’S NOTE: Dayton Daily News reporters Chris Stewart and Josh Sweigart — joined at times by Storm Center 7 Chief Meteorologist McCall Vrydaghs — are traveling the length of the largest of the 2019 Memorial Day tornadoes. It tore a path all the way across Montgomery County impacting thousands of homes and businesses. We are gathering people’s stories and investigating obstacles to recovery. This story is part of that coverage. Go here for the full project.
The local rental market was not positioned to absorb the large number of tenants who lost homes in the Memorial Day tornadoes, and many people now face higher rents as they look for new housing.
“The market was already very tight, so occupancy was already tight,” said Lloyd Cobble, president of the Greater Dayton Apartment Association.
The Dayton Daily News interviewed renters, property owners and nonprofit agencies to learn how the historic storms affected them.
The total number of renters displaced is unclear. FEMA records show 2,453 individuals or families who rented in Montgomery County requested assistance, overshadowing the number of homeowners who applied.
So far FEMA has awarded more than 1,000 grants to Montgomery County renters compared to about 230 for homeowners.
The Miami Valley Community Action Partnership has provided rental assistance to about 500 families affected by the disaster.
More than 1,000 apartment units were rendered unlivable just in Trotwood, according to a FEMA report. Woodland Hills and Westbrooke Village — with a combined 744 units — were both condemned.
Regina Edwards was one of those people forced to leave Woodland Hills. Edwards, 54, is retired but now living back in her mother’s house after the tornado ripped the roof off of her top-floor apartment.
“It’s a struggle finding placement because everybody’s trying to find somewhere to go,” she said.
Already tight market
Rental unit occupancy was above 93 percent in all areas of the Dayton Metropolitan Statistical Area, according to a 2018 study prepared by the research firm CB Richard Ellis (CBRE) for the local association. During the previous five-year period, occupancy averaged 94.4 percent for the entire Dayton metro area that includes Montgomery, Greene and Miami counties.
While a few rogue landlords might have timed a rent increase to the tornadoes’ aftermath, Cobble said rents have been on the upswing year-after-year following the Great Recession.
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Rents for multi-family properties increased 5.5 percent between 2017 and 2018, according to the CBRE survey.
Compounding the problem, the apartment complexes destroyed by the EF4 tornado were among the most affordable in the region. Survivors had to look for housing in areas where rent was higher even before the storm, according to the association’s market research.
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“The struggle is to find and get them in quality housing,” Cobble said. “There probably aren’t as many affordable options. The trend was already there years before the tornadoes.”
Rents vary greatly by location, according to the survey. A two-bedroom, two-bath apartment in the north part of the metro area averaged $709 a month, while a similar unit rented on average for $971 across the entire metro area — and as high as $1,367 in the central part of the Dayton metro area.
‘Everything is just gone’
Leisa Jones lived with her 12-year-old daughter in the Rivers Edge Apartments in Harrison Twp.
“Normally you plan a move. You know that you’re moving. But when this happened, it was unplanned. And everything is just gone,” Jones said. “Not only do you still have the bills that you had, you now have new expenses, like trying to get clothes.”
Adding to Jones’ anxiety, her daughter was starting the new year at a private school where the tuition had just been raised, she said.
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“It was, oh my God, this is all hitting back-to-back,” she said.
After their apartment was obliterated, Jones and her daughter spent the night in their car at a gas station parking lot. It took nearly two months for them to find a new place.
“Hotels, couches, you name it,” said Jones, reached by the Dayton Daily News after she responded to the newspaper’s online survey about tornado recovery obstacles.
They finally found a house to rent in Dayton, closer to her work and daughter’s school. Jones pays $825 in rent now, about $75 more per month, and is responsible for another $100 a month for water and trash.
One place she looked at in Jefferson Twp. wanted even more, $890 a month, despite a bad odor and dog urine damage.
“It was horrible,” she said. “Wow, people know people are out here looking for somewhere to live and they are jacking up the prices. It is crazy.”
Many renters put out of tornado-damaged properties were already rent-burdened, defined as spending more than 30% of your income on housing. Some people had up to 50% of their income going to housing, said Chelsie Spoor, director of resource development at the community action partnership.
They had been making the lease payments for years, she said, but now a new landlord might require them to prove a monthly income three times greater than rent.
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“They would be paying the same amount but they are not being considered as a new tenant because their rent is still more than 50 percent of their income,” she said.
Robyn Traywick, staff attorney for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, said the organization offered free legal advice to hundreds of storm survivors.
“Ninety percent of the people we dealt with had housing issues, whether it be difficulty with the homeowner, getting insurance done, landlords kicking people out, not giving them their deposit back,” she said. “Housing is still a huge issue right now.”
Property owners also affected
Workers are racing to have the damaged buildings at Westbrooke Village closed in before winter really sets in, said Daniel Penn of the complex owner Gated Properties VI LLC.
On top of insurance settlements, Penn said the company is putting in more of its own money to make upgrades.
“When it’s all said and done, it will be brand new,” he said.
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The tornadoes also spawned disputes between tenants and landlords.
Jordan Pleasant, who rented a Harrison Twp. house damaged in the tornado, said he had a verbal agreement with the owner that he wouldn’t have to pay rent until all the rooms in the house were put back to normal. He further claimed the landlords owed him money for cleanup work he did on his own, an argument he made when the dispute landed in Vandalia Municipal Court last month.
Janet Allen, who owns the house with her husband, Elige Allen, said the roof was repaired as quickly as possible. They allowed him to live there rent-free in June and July but other work was hindered by Pleasant’s refusal to allow workers access to the property. They demanded rent for August forward, which went unpaid.
The Allens’ attorney, Laurence Lasky, said it was a case of a tenant attempting to take advantage of landlords, who the day after the tornado “were there like the cavalry to help this kid.”
“They didn’t create the tornado. They didn’t create the debris field outside his house. But he took it out on them,” Lasky said.
Magistrate Joseph Armanini ruled in favor of the Allens, and Pleasant was evicted.
“This case is unfortunate. The tornado was unfortunate. It impacted a lot of folks’ lives, both owners and tenants,” Armanini said. “But the law is the law.”
Multiple application fees
As Regina Edwards searches for a new place to live, she has encountered nonrefundable application fees that can reach $40 each.
“Some of the landlords are not waiving application fees,” she said. “Put in five applications in a day, that’s a lot of money.”
Miami Valley Community Action Partnership asked property owners across the region to waive the application fees for tornado survivors but was met with resistance from some landlords, according to the organization.
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“You’ve lost all your personal items. You’ve lost all your household items, and now you have to come up with this money to even to apply for a place to live,” said Barry Strahorn, MVCAP’s housing rehabilitation director.
The application fees are a routine part of the business that covers the costs of applicants’ credit reports and to conduct criminal background checks, said Cobble, of the apartment association. While some larger companies waived the fees for storm survivors, “the smaller landlords may not be able to necessarily do that,” he said.
‘1,000 people homeless at one time’
Melissa Maggard was asleep, healing from a back surgery just two days before when her husband, Harris Parrish, rushed her to an interior bathroom at their Woodland Hills apartment.
“The track of the tornado came right through the middle of the complex,” she said. “So it went right in front of my big panoramic window in the living room.”
It took them weeks to find housing.
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“These landlords out here were jacking up deposits, jacking up application fees because they knew FEMA was paying,” Maggard said. “They are going to get as much as they can out of the deal. Because people are struggling and they’re desperate.”
Maggard and Parrish finally found an east Dayton apartment — and an understanding landlord who didn’t charge an application fee and accepted a half-month’s deposit.
“We are a lot better than most people are and we are grateful,” Maggard said.
“Just between my complex and the one on the other side of the tree line, which is Westbrooke Village, you’ve got to figure there were almost 1,000 people homeless at one time, freaking out,” she said.
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Displaced people also have losses that aren’t financial.
“People say be glad nobody got hurt,” Jones said. “I am. But at the same time, people don’t understand that saying that all the time is kind of rude.”
A couple of days after the tornado, Jones combed through debris near her Rivers Edge apartment, hoping to find her wallet and family photos.
“Memories are gone. Things that you cherished are gone,” she said.
Jones never found her wallet but stumbled on one of her daughter’s baby shoes.
“That just tore me up,” she said. “There’s another baby shoe out there and it means something to me.”
How to extend FEMA housing benefits
Federal aid that extends housing benefits for up to 18 months remains available to qualified Memorial Day tornado survivors.
FEMA’s Continued Temporary Housing Assistance Program can make up the difference paid for rent if tornadoes forced an individual or household into higher-priced housing, according to FEMA.
Both homeowners and renters are eligible, but it is available only to those who registered with FEMA before the Sept. 3 deadline and have exhausted initial rental assistance, which is typically about $2,500.
For more information about the extended housing assistance program visit DisasterAssistance.gov or call the FEMA Helpline, 800-621-3362.