Emily Moll and her boyfriend watched a televised New York Giants game on Sunday with no idea they were about to lose their Apopka-area rental home, possessions and hopes to purchase in the next year.

Then Hurricane Irma struck Central Florida.

"I know it was only a rental," said Moll, 24. "But we were building our life, building our things. We were planning on buying a house."

The plight of Orlando-area renters sheds light on a new set of post-Irma realities — rent payments on uninhabitable homes and apartments, challenges getting rent deposits refunded and few housing options in a tight rental market.

"It's kind of like being stuck in the mud right now," said Jay Myers, owner of Orlando Realty and Property Management. "You just have to work your way through it."

Of the 600 Central Florida rental properties his group manages, only about 1.5% were vacant leading up to Irma. That supply has tightened further with damaged properties. Also, residents of Naples and other harder-hit areas have started looking for rentals in Orlando, Myers said. The advantage goes to tenants with pay stubs and tax returns in hand but, even then, the process has slowed, he added.

Moll and Ryan Rose, 26, had to suddenly leave their home as Irma swept through the Orlando area early Sept. 11. An old pecan tree crushed the house Rose had rented for three years. Moll said it sounded like a car crashing into the house, breaking glass as it fell into the living room.

Damage in the rental home where Emily Moll and Ryan Rose lived after a tree fell on it during Hurricane Irma.
Damage in the rental home where Emily Moll and Ryan Rose lived after a tree fell on it during Hurricane Irma. Emily Moll

After smelling smoke, Rose called 911. A recording of the call captured his despair: "… I don't know if the middle of my house is going to collapse. Oh my God. …"

Apopka firefighters responded within 10 minutes and told the couple to evacuate. The couple crammed a few belongings into bags, and grabbed their Chihuahua mix and two dogs owned by a roommate who was away. They left in their roommate's Tahoe SUV, dodging downed trees en route to a friend's house near Longwood.

Lost deposit

Their hopes of getting back all of the $1,500 deposit on their rental were dashed in part because Rose's lease exempted refunds for natural disasters. The landlord told the Sentinel he was trying to work with them on a deposit refund.

Orlando attorney Justin Clark said the "force majeure" lease clause about natural disasters isn't all that common but just another challenge renters may face when their house becomes inhabitable. He suggested tenants discuss options for discounted rent or a short break on rent.

"A damaged property is incredibly difficult for both the landlord and tenant," Clark said. "The landlord is forced to pay for repairs often out of pocket while still also paying the mortgage. The tenant still has to pay the rent while not happy with the living situation."

To help find funds so they could lease an apartment, Moll said she called FEMA, only to be told she was ineligible for aid until she settled with her rental insurance. They outlined $5,300 in damages to their furnishings and belongings. The insurance company agreed to pay $3,300. The couple started an online fundraising campaign and quickly reached their goal of $3,000 with help mostly from friends and family members.

"We did as much as we could and helped out," said Ryan's father, New York resident Michael Cuoco. "… Of course FEMA has to help a lot of people but how much worse could it be than losing everything?"

Moll and Rose have been in Central Florida's hospitality industry for years, serving meals and beverages to locals and visitors. Rose works at a Disney hotel restaurant and The Melting Pot in Longwood. Moll works as a nanny and Uber driver, trying to complete her associate's degree at Seminole State College. They went from enjoying their own place to sharing a three-bedroom house with Rose's family, including his three younger siblings and three cats. It's unclear how long it would take to rebuild the house they rented on a month-to-month basis.

Tight market

Last-minute apartment hunting is particularly tough in one of the country's strongest rental markets. Only about 5% of Orlando-area units are vacant.

Property managers did not return calls from Moll seeking an immediate opening on rentals. But CBRE Vice Chairman Shelton Granade said new complexes are coming on line but there may be a price to pay.

"There are definitely units available, and new supply in the pipeline in various submarkets, but the high occupancy likely suggests that prospective renters will see higher lease rates than they would have seen 12, six, or even three months ago," he said.

Rent at their old rental was $1,700, with three roommates sharing expenses. Post-Irma, Moll and Rose found a two-bedroom apartment for $1,500 but will have to split it two ways once they move in Sept. 29. Their roommate is likely to face challenges finding a rental with his two larger dogs, Rose said.

In a rare program aimed at renters rebuilding their lives after a disaster, HUD offers a no-down-payment mortgage that forgives many credit issues. Rob Nunziata, president of FBC Mortgage, said HUD's 203(H) home loan opens rare opportunities for renters who lost their homes in the disaster.

Few, though, know about it, he added. Moll and Rose said Irma left them unsettled about immediate plans but they said they would investigate the disaster-related mortgage.
They worry their hopes of fine-tuning their credit to qualify for an affordable mortgage during the next year might be dashed. She said she was three classes from completing her associate's degree. She said she was saving up to register for spring classes but might not be able to take them.

"We were working so hard and now it's back to square one," she said.

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