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Panhandle Eviction Crisis Is Splitting Families

Cream Brick House rests on a lawn of green grass.
Robbie Gaffney

Housing is scarce and evictions in the Panhandle are on the rise, leaving many with nowhere to go.

Chiquita Hodges holds a fluffy white puppy in her arms in front of a house she has been renting.
Credit Robbie Gaffney / WFSU-FM
Chiquita Hodges scoops up her children's dog as the family prepares to move out of the house they have been renting.

In the small city of Port St. Joe, neighborhoods are mostly cleared of debris, but families like the Hodges are still feeling the effects. The Hodges family has rented a three bedroom house for almost three years, but after being given an eviction notice, they can’t find a place for a family of seven.

“Nobody’s renting nothing out,” says Chiquita Hodges, mother of the family.

“If you come back home and your house wasn’t destroyed, you was blessed,” Hodges continues.

The house Hodges was renting had minor structural damage from Hurricane Michael, but mold from rainwater made one of the rooms unlivable. Last week, Hodges had to tell her children to pack up for good.

Closeup of Chiquita's face.
Credit Robbie Gaffney / WFSU-FM
Chiquita Hodges staring out over the yard.

“I don’t know what else to tell them other than that we have to move, and having to split them up between my brother and my uncle, and then me and my husband and my baby boy have to find somewhere to stay until we relocate somewhere, it’s going to be hard,” says Hodges.

Three girls stand together
Credit Robbie Gaffney / WFSU-FM
Chiquita shows pictures of her daughters.

Hodges’ story is part of a larger housing epidemic that stretches across the Panhandle. Bay County’s Superintendent of Schools, Bill Husfelt, said in March that 73% of apartment housing in the area was uninhabitable.

“Evictions are starting in housing that people should not be living in, but they’re living in it because there’s nowhere to else to live and again, that’s one of our major problems,” says Husfelt.

Husfelt says he’s had to close down schools due to the shifting population.

“We have a lot of teachers and administrators that have lost their homes and support personnel. We have a lot of staff—I’ve got one staff member who has moved seven times since the storm,” Husfelt continues.

The housing crisis is even stalling efforts to rebuild the healthcare community. Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center’s Brad Griffin says housing is a major concern when recruiting new employees.

“Having an adequate housing market is going to be very important to them as well, so I think there’s going to be an impact with that. Also, because of the way the housing is currently, it’s going to be a while for the population to rebuild and therefore for there to continue to be a growing demand for healthcare services,” says Griffin.

Legal Service of North Florida sent workers to evaluate the situation in October, which is when Scott Manion noticed an eviction crisis.

“I talked to a lady, she’s in her apartment. It’s her, and her granddaughter’s two-years-old, and the windows are gone, there’s a hole in the roof, the carpets are sopping wet,” says Manion.

She’d been asked to leave, but Manion told her she didn’t have to. He says tenants have protections to prevent eviction after a disaster.

“When a person has a written lease, when they have paid their rent, the right to terminate the lease when there’s a disaster in the landlord tenant act is with the tenant,” continues Manion.

But tenants like Hodges aren’t so lucky. After a months-long battle with the homeowner, Hodges is now living with a friend and her children are sleeping under different roofs.

Robbie Gaffney graduated from Florida State University with degrees in Digital Media Production and Creative Writing. Before working at WFSU, they recorded FSU’s basketball and baseball games for Seminole Productions as well as interned for the PBS Station in Largo, Florida. Robbie loves playing video games such as Shadow of the Colossus, Animal Crossing, and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. Their other hobbies include sleeping and watching anime.