TUNKHANNOCK, Pa. — Pennsylvania residents who lost their homes to Tropical Storm Lee more than three weeks ago are having a tough time finding affordable housing, or any housing at all, because workers in the area’s natural gas drilling boom have filled nearly every room.
Last month’s record flooding has worsened a housing crunch in north central and northeastern Pennsylvania, where a surge in drilling over the past few years has led to housing shortages and skyrocketing rents. Flood victims say that available units are few, and federal disaster assistance doesn’t come close to paying the rent on the scattered vacancies that are left.
Kim Eastwood, whose home was severely damaged in the flood, has been staying with her son, daughter and elderly mother in a Red Cross shelter in a high school gymnasium while she tries to find a place for them to live.
It hasn’t been easy — not shelter life with its cold showers and hard cots, nor her quest for an apartment or house. “The couple we saw are way too expensive,” said Eastwood, 35, of Mehoopany.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency says it will provide temporary trailers to residents who qualify — the first batch of about 250 trailers has been approved, and they are being rolled out in the coming days and weeks — but that process takes time. In the meantime, flooded-out residents are on a difficult and sometimes fruitless search for housing.
“They can’t find any place to go because there is no place to go,” said Brian Wrightson, emergency services director for 10 American Red Cross chapters in northeastern Pennsylvania. “They don’t want to uproot their children from the schools and leave their communities and it’s become an issue.”
Storms that wreaked havoc on much of the Northeast last month caused historic flooding of the Susquehanna River and small streams and creeks in Pennsylvania, damaging or destroying many thousands of homes. Statewide, more than 57,000 victims of the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee and Hurricane Irene have registered for federal disaster aid, with about $75 million distributed to date, most of that as rental assistance.
State officials have set up a website, www.pahousingsearch.com, to help flood victims find houses and apartments. But in this region of the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation believed to hold the nation’s largest reservoir of natural gas, much of the housing stock is clearly geared toward gas-industry workers.
“The rental rates are severely inflated,” said Kim Wheeler, a state Department of Community and Economic Development staffer who has been working to secure housing for flood victims in heavily drilled Lycoming County.
In Bradford County, the center of the Marcellus industry, three-bedroom homes are listed for $1,200 to $1,700 per month, far above what a flood victim can be expected to receive from FEMA. That’s because rental assistance is based on what the government calculates as fair-market rent for the area — and the fair-market rent for a three-bedroom in Bradford County is only $704.
The supply is grossly inadequate, too. In hard-hit Wyoming County, where Eastwood and 13 others have been sheltering in the gymnasium of Tunkhannock High School, the state website lists only two properties for rent.
Gene Dziak, Wyoming County’s emergency management coordinator, said FEMA trailers will be needed to help meet demand.
“To find an apartment within Wyoming County is virtually impossible,” he said. “We’re kind of waiting for our temporary housing situation to be squared away and for FEMA to step in and help. That’s in the very near future, we hope.”
As of Friday, FEMA had identified 2,721 disaster relief applicants statewide that qualify for trailers, or “temporary housing units” in FEMA parlance. Of those, the agency had managed to contact more than 1,800 applicants and confirmed 249 of them for the housing units, which come fully furnished with a kitchen, two bedrooms and a bathroom.
“We are very aware there’s a shortage of rental resources in the state, and we are addressing it,” said FEMA spokesman Michael Sweet.
High rents and low supply aren’t the only challenges confronting flood victims in the Marcellus Shale. Even for more reasonably price units, landlords often balk at signing leases with terms under a year, or they don’t accept pets, or there’s some other reason it’s not a good fit, Wheeler said.
A majority of the six dozen families who have come to Wheeler for help are still looking.
“Very few of (the landlords) are really doing this (to provide) true assistance to the flood victims. They’re a business and they want someone in there who they don’t have to worry about for a while,” Wheeler said. “It’s not an easy or pretty picture.”
At the Red Cross shelter in Tunkhannock where 14 people remained late last week, caseworkers have proposed splitting up the Eastwood family and moving them to Carbondale, an hour’s drive to the east. Eastwood is resisting. “We’re not moving to Carbondale. I have kids in school, my mom is older and her doctor’s here,” she said.
So they remain at the shelter, using $600 of their $1,700 in FEMA rental assistance on a pair of two-night stays at a hotel — a small taste of normalcy.
Another family staying at the shelter plans to move to Georgia. Christy Fowler, 43, a Georgia native who lived in Mehoopany with her husband and three children, said the family had talked about moving south for a while. The flood that wrecked the first floor of their home made it an easy call — there’s nowhere else in the area they can afford.
Private rentals and FEMA trailers will end up housing only a portion of the victims of last month’s flood. Most displaced residents have moved in with high-and-dry family members.
That has made for some very cramped quarters.
Lori Chilson, 40, has seven extra people living in her house in Laporte, Sullivan County, all of them from her husband’s side of the family. Her husband, a contractor, installed a second full bathroom to accommodate the influx, especially his mother, who’s on oxygen and needed a bathroom near her sleeping quarters.
“We had to do what we had to do,” Chilson said. “It’s been hard, but everyone’s adjusting. It’s working well so far.”
With expenses mounting, especially for heating oil, Chilson has inquired about getting federal disaster assistance but was told it’s only for flood victims.
“They said we’re not flood victims,” she said, “but we kind of are.”