Recently, the Washington Post told the story of a young woman named Rose. Rose lives in the Star motel with her family, and when the electricity was about to be turned off, she gave as much of her own money as she could to keep the A/C on for one more week. She feels like her family has been forgotten.
Since that article was published, conditions have worsened at the property, and funds have become available for us to start relocating all of those residents to safer living conditions. The thing is, there is no housing in Central Florida that they could afford on their income, so a motel is her family’s only choice to have a roof over their heads.
In this community, only 20 affordable units exist for every 100 extremely low-income families like Rose’s. To think of it another way, there are 56,000 extremely low-income renters in Central Florida and only 11,200 available and attainable units. What about the remaining 44,000 renters? These families end up paying more than 50% of their income on rent, or they resort to living in situations that aren’t stable such as hotels, motels, or doubled up with other families.
The Community Hope Center has walked alongside families like Rose’s since we started operations in 2014, and I started doing outreach at the Star motel as early as 2011. In the last year, we’ve moved eight families from hotels to stable housing, and creating affordable housing has always been a long-term goal of the Hope Center.
But affordable housing isn't profitable, even for a nonprofit. For developers to build units that workers in this community can actually afford, they would have to take huge losses, which they simply can't afford. We keep running into the same problem: We can't keep rents affordable for the families we aim to serve with the current cost of construction.
Many offer tax credit deals as a potential solution, but even the reduced rents required for these units are still out of reach for too many in our community. So, if business, government and the nonprofit sector can't afford to develop affordable housing, then how do we begin making up the 70,000-unit deficit in our community?
We’ve been thinking creatively about how to address this issue, and we have a plan that may surprise those who support and follow our work: We want to buy a hotel.
You may be thinking, “I thought you were moving families out of hotels? Isn’t that the goal?” The answer is yes, and our priority is making sure that families have dignified housing. So, until we can build the affordable housing we’ve dreamed of and designed, we want to convert hotel rooms into livable apartments for families to thrive and live a stable life.
The economic downturn from Covid-19 to our tourist economy will be felt for years to come, and small hotels and motels will struggle to survive. The American Hotel & Lodging Association predicts nationwide 8,000 hotels could close by the end of the year. Instead of letting these buildings sit vacant and overgrown, imagine adding 50-80 units per hotel to the housing stock in almost an instant.
As nonprofits, governments and businesses pivot in this Covid-19 world, we must think creatively about how we can prevent a homelessness crisis larger than ever before. I’m committed to doing what we need to do to get families into stable housing because the only thing that ends homelessness is a home.
The Rev. Mary Lee Downey is CEO and founder of the Community Hope Center.