Woman, 70, faces homelessness after rent increased at Osceola County extended stay

OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. — 70-year old Shirley is a full-time worker at a Central Florida resort. She makes $14 per hour. She is also preparing to move back into her van.

“I will never enjoy the word ‘retirement,’” said Shirley, who asked to only be identified by her first name. “Never.”

Thanks to a recent rent increase, the senior is unable to afford her current room in an extended stay facility in Osceola County. She said she eats just one meal per day to save money.

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That’s because a recent report shows Central Floridians need to make close to $22 per hour — eight dollars more than Shirley makes — to afford a market-rate one-bedroom apartment.

Seniors like Shirley are eligible for low-income housing, but many places exclude them. The facilities simply aren’t built to ADA standards to accommodate people with severe mobility issues.

“I’m not sleeping in a bed where I am now because the bed is higher than what I can get into,” Shirley said. “I’m sleeping in a chair.”

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According to Habitat for Humanity of Greater Orlando and Osceola Counties, state lawmakers diverted funding meant to build affordable homes for 12 years toward other projects.

That left Central Florida short 73,000 units, a report by the organization said.

According to CEO Catherine Steck McManus, the funding model changed this year, giving organizations like hers a more predictable, albeit lower, budget to work with.

Still, while she said Habitat and other developers can build with accessibility in mind, going the extra step often costs too many dollars.

“You can usually add at least $5,000 to $10,000 more to the cost of that home, just to make it accessible; that doesn’t even get into making it ADA-compliant,” McManus said.

McManus said the number of seniors in the Orlando area that were at risk of losing their homes was in the thousands. Many were in more precarious positions than Shirley: Out of work, and physically and mentally unable to get hired to supplement their fixed incomes.

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She added that Habitat was trying to change Central Florida’s culture to incorporate housing into discussions of other societal issues.

For her part, the 70-year-old said people needed to focus on more than young Americans when discussing low-income construction.

“Seniors are humans, we should not be swept under the rug,” Shirley said, adding that developers have often offered to upgrade units to comply with ADA standards if she paid for it.

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However, short of building more expensive units, she said she wanted someone to help connect seniors to the supply already exists.

“I never thought at any age, I’d be living in a van,” she said. “But I’m very grateful I have it.”