The dank parking lot of the Great Value Suites on Orange Blossom Trail is seemingly abandoned and quiet one Saturday afternoon in January. Not for long, though.
Gus Martinez and members of the charity organization Miles of Help Through Christ drive up to the parking lot. Their cars are packed to the brim with lunch boxes of rice and chicken, loaves of bread, pastries, cakes, cases of water, toys and clothing.
Martinez gazes up for a second at the apartments before yelling, "Is anyone hungry?"
Slowly, one, then two, then seven children pitter-patter down the stairs, bikes and tricycles in hand, toward Martinez and the other volunteers. By the time the adults get there, the kids are heading back up the stairs to their homes, carefully balancing towers of food in tiny hands. Martinez hands a lunch box to Raymond Rosado, one of the last adults to arrive, before he helps the remaining children look through the toy box.
Rosado, 49, said when we met him that he and his family had been living at Great Value Suites for three months. He and his wife used to live in public housing, but after his stepdaughter and her husband arrived from Puerto Rico to stay with them, they had to leave. The extended-stay hotel will continue to be their home until Rosado and his family find one of the most elusive things in the Orlando area: affordable housing.
A study released last year by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies shows renters in the Metro Orlando area have a median household income of $35,190, but midpoint rent costs are $1,030. About 56 percent of area renters are considered "rent-burdened," which means they spend more than 30 percent of their income on household costs. Renters who spend more than half of what they make on household costs are considered severely rent-burdened, and in Metro Orlando, that's almost 30 percent of all renters.
Renters living paycheck to paycheck have little room to save, leaving them vulnerable to unforeseen events, such as an unexpected hospital visit for a sick child, a broken car or the loss of a job, says Ashley Blasewitz, vice president of marketing and communications at Heart of Florida United Way. That leads to some families having to choose between paying rent, being late on an electricity bill or forgoing a meal. Blasewitz says not only is cost an issue, but so is the availability of affordable housing. United Way's Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) report for 2014 shows the gap in rental stock of affordable housing in Orange, Osceola and Seminole Counties is 95,618 units.
"There's a whole population that's a fingernail away from falling through the cracks," she says. "I always find it interesting in the monthly reports we publish that around 40 percent of people who call us are first-time callers. It happens a lot more frequently than you might imagine."
Josette von Birgelen, assistant director of the Heart of Florida United Way's 211 help line, says anecdotally she often hears of households where each adult works two jobs, and losing one job can put a whole family in a vicious cycle of late payments.
"I want to stress that as soon as a family thinks they may be in trouble financially, reach out for help," she says. "We're here 24-7 and you can text, chat and email. Don't wait until the last moment because of pride or because of not knowing what to do. Families need to educate themselves on the options as soon as possible."
Oren Henry, director of housing and community development for the city of Orlando, says one of the reasons for rent increases in the area is because the cost of building housing has also increased. The city is focusing on demolishing dilapidated housing for new affordable housing sites and on providing rental assistance to the chronically homeless and people who can't afford their payments.
"We'd like to see affordable housing spread across the community, into what works best in neighborhoods," he says.
Raymond Rosado says he and his family are trying to save up enough money to buy a house nearby. With the mass exodus of Puerto Ricans from the island to Central Florida, he often hears of large families, sometimes even groups of friends, who join together to rent or purchase large homes because they can't afford by themselves. His stepdaughter and her husband earn slightly more than the state minimum wage of $8.05, but he says that the majority of jobs immediately available for recent arrivals start at $8, sometimes $9 per hour in hotels, fast food restaurants and other areas of the tourism industry. Working full time at those wages, an annual salary can be between $16,640 and $18,720.
"In the Orlando, Orange County area, it's really hard to find a house," he says. "And if you find it, it's going to be upwards of $1,200 in monthly payments, and for a good neighborhood, over $2,000. And that's the trick, because people who start at minimum wage, it doesn't give them enough to get a house."