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Free FEMA housing ends for 2004 storm victims

Floridians in FEMA mobile homes must start paying rent on May 1, and must leave soon after that.

By SHADI RAHIMI
Published March 25, 2006


PUNTA GORDA - Maggie Swinarski wants out. For more than a year she has been living in a temporary mobile home parked alongside hundreds of others on a desolate, dusty patch of land next to the Charlotte County jail.

She's looking for an affordable house, but has had no luck.

"I'm worried about being able to make it," said Swinarski, 28, who has a 6-year-old son.

Rent has spiked since Swinarski and her neighbors at the Federal Emergency Management Agency site in Punta Gorda were left homeless by Hurricane Charley.

For many families in the 500-plus mobile homes and travel trailers in Charlotte County, the search for a new home has been discouraging. Now it's growing desperate.

FEMA has announced that victims of the 2004 Florida hurricanes must start paying rent on May 1, and must find somewhere else to live by late September.

"I will not be paying rent here, not for this," Swinarski said, pointing to the rows of small white mobile homes. "Life here is rough."

For the more than 4,000 Florida families left homeless after hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, FEMA's decision means they will pay a specific rate that factors in location, income, disabilities, number of children and other criteria that affect their ability to pay.

In Punta Gorda, the maximum rent for a temporary trailer will be $502 per month.

For a mobile home with three occupied bedrooms, the rent will be $926 per month.

Talk among neighbors at the Punta Gorda park has placed the rent for a trailer at $1,000 per month, said one resident, 32-year-old Carl Bailey.

That would be too steep, he said, though it's reasonable for FEMA to begin charging rent.

"I'm still looking for a home, so right now I'm just happy to have a roof above my head," Bailey said.

FEMA will inform the Florida mobile home residents of their rental rates this week, said Jim Homstead, an agency spokesman in the Orlando office.

FEMA began providing free housing after Hurricane Charley in August 2004.

It is charging the rent because federal law allows the agency to provide free trailers for only 18 months after a disaster, Homstead said. The Feb. 13 deadline has been extended to Sept. 26.

The money will go into FEMA's disaster relief fund.

FEMA has also announced that it will use the same rent system in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Free housing is being offered to Hurricane Katrina victims until February 2007, and Rita victims have until March 2007.

But the pressure is now for Ken Haney.

The 40-year-old electrician has not found an affordable house to rent with his wife and two teenage children, despite months of searching in the Port Charlotte area.

"Renters are taking advantage of how many people need a place to live, they're price gouging if you ask me," Haney said.

"It's just ridiculous."

[Last modified March 25, 2006, 08:26:03]


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