Dozens of families who found refuge from Hurricane Sandy at the Stony Point Conference Center have been given a Friday deadline to find a new place to live and are now facing an area housing crisis as demand continues to exceed supply.
Apartment rentals have been hard to come by in the area, residents and local real estate agents said. Where apartments are available, costs are high and landlords aren't easing up on restrictions.
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"We're all scared," said Nina Brabham, 51, who has been staying at the center with her two sons -- Michael Brabham, 16, and Anthony Jamieson, 12 -- since the superstorm hit Oct. 29. "I've been going crazy the last two weeks looking for a place. I can't afford some of these rents. And I'm a hardworking person. Where do we go?"
Brabham was paying $1,000 a month for her two-bedroom apartment on River Road in Stony Point, just feet from the Hudson River's edge. She said she can't find anything comparable for less than $1,600. One landlord refused to show her a one-bedroom flat because she had two children who were going to live with her, she said.
Brabham said she has worked with the mentally challenged for more than 30 years.
"We're homeless," she said, sobbing. "We're homeless, not because we didn't pay our rent. We're homeless because of a disaster. You think you're going home to a mess, and everything is just gone. We have nothing left. All we want is for people to understand our situation. We're not asking for a handout, but knock $100 off the rent, something to make it easier on us."
FEMA spokesman Gary Weidner said the center has been approved for transitional housing until Dec. 14. That means federal aid is available to pay for the use of the center as a shelter. Assessments of family needs will be done individually Friday, and where homes are habitable, residents at the conference center will go home, Weidner said.
The big problem the families face is that -- according to manager Paula Sandusky -- the center's rooms have been booked for retreat groups during the upcoming weekends. A volunteer caseworker was scheduled to show up Tuesday night to meet with the families and help figure out solutions for more permanent housing.
As of Tuesday, the conference center still housed 110 people -- 60 adults and 50 children -- who were using Federal Emergency Management Agency rental assistance to pay the $50 nightly room fee.
A family's rental assistance amount is set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and is based on household size. Rental assistance is calculated and dispersed on a case-by-case basis. On Tuesday, Weidner urged residents to stay in contact with FEMA to see whether additional aid would be available after they leave the center.
"The problem is, too, they have to continue to pay rent on their mobile home, whether they're living there or not," Sandusky said Tuesday, noting that many of those now staying at the conference center had trailer homes at the Ba Mar trailer park. "It's going to be a great financial burden on them."
ONE OF THE "LUCKY" ONES
As her 2-year-old son Caleb ran around a common area in the conference center Tuesday, Sonia Castillo, 37, held back tears as she described what was left of her first-floor flat on North Street in Stony Point. The apartment was destroyed by 15-foot storm surges carrying tons of sewage.
"My apartment got totaled," Castillo said. "There's a sewage plant right next door, and all the fecal matter seeped into my apartment. I lost everything."
Having contacted five Realtors and having browsed craigslist for weeks, Castillo landed a two-bedroom apartment at the Tor View Village apartments, but had to spend more than $4,000 up front. She said she was forced to shell out $100 for an application fee and credit check, $100 for a deposit to hold the apartment while her credit cleared and the standard three months' rent at $1,575 per month.
"It's been difficult because I'm a single parent and these prices are high in Rockland County," Castillo said. "We have no homes. But I consider myself lucky that I now have a place for me and my son. No one was coming to us and saying, 'These apartments are available.' It's been so hard."
Realtor Frank Golio has been advising families in need of housing that they can expect landlords to be tough on credit scores, smoking and especially pets. Golio has had a listing on craigslist for a three-bedroom, three-bathroom apartment in Stony Point for $2,295.
"Landlord will consider short term rental for anyone displaced by Sandy!!," the ad reads.
"That ad is one in a million," Golio said. "There are so many people in need of an apartment; it's a difficult task."
Jodi Thomas, a Realtor at Kennedy and Kennedy Estate Associates in Piermont, looked up rental units in her firm's database and found that, of the 240 units available in Rockland County, only 20 are in Stony Point.
"I call up landlords and I say they have a small dog and you'd swear I was talking about a fugitive from the law," Thomas said.
Only half of the units available in the Stony Point area fall below $1,800 per month, and of those just four are available as short-term rentals, said real estate agent Naomi Vargas.
"It's the wintertime and the market is really slow. There aren't a lot of apartments available because people don't normally move when it's cold and during the holidays," Vargas said. "And if landlords take a short-term rental for three or four months, they're stuck in the middle of the winter with an empty apartment. They won't do that."