Rebuild Florida changes policy to help Hurricane Irma victims avoid eviction after 8 On Your Side exposes issue

8 On Your Side

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Nearly four years after Hurricane Irma, some homeowners are still living in horrific conditions, while others fear eviction. Now, an 8 On Your Side investigation is changing state policy and helping storm victims keep their homes.

“I’ve cried many a tear over this,” Deborah Shiver said.

Deborah and other storm victims are in a classic Catch-22. To live in a healthy, safe, secure environment, they need a replacement home. But once they get a replacement home, they’ll face eviction.

8 On Your Side first exposed Deborah’s predicament in December.

To live in her Lakeland Harbor community, like all the other neighbors, Deborah needs a carport and shed. It’s required.

According to community rules and regulations, if you violate these standards, “management…reserves the right to terminate the tenancy of any resident.”

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity oversees Rebuild Florida. It has received $346,186,147 from the federal government for its housing replacement program.

8 On Your Side asked a spokeswoman why Deborah’s new property appears to be violating the community’s rules. The explanation is that installing such structures “goes against regulations put forth by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development.”

Deborah’s neighbor, Gary McMaken, is facing the same dilemma. The veteran tried to bargain with the state to keep his old carport and shed.

“I’ve asked if they would just leave that and I will attach it but they said they can’t do that,” said Gary. “I have no income…except for social security, no savings.”

8 On Your Side pressed Rebuild Florida on its policy that leaves people on the brink of eviction. In communities where a carport is mandatory, why would the federal government ban replacement?

It turns out, the federal government is doing no such thing.

“Really it’s up to the discretion of the state to rebuild what is appropriate,” Democratic Congressman and Florida gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist said. “Can you imagine having to wait four years to get your life back together after a tragic hurricane?”

Crist obtained a letter sent from HUD to Rebuild Florida that outlines how the state has deference in determining how to spend the funds. According to the letter, the state could replace structures like carports and sheds.

Despite that document, Rebuild Florida still wasn’t budging for weeks.

At a news conference in St. Petersburg, 8 On Your Side Investigator Mahsa Saeidi explained the situation to Gov. Ron DeSantis and asked, “Can you look into helping Gary [McMaken] and people like Gary in this situation?”

“Yes, so do you have the address and everything like that you could give that I could give to the secretary?” Gov. DeSantis replied. “We’re happy to do it.”

Immediately, the governor’s press secretary emailed us that the problem will be solved.

Rebuild Florida has now changed its tune. If a carport and shed are required in a community, they will be replaced.  

However, the agency is not replacing all carports and sheds – they’ll only do it if the requirement is in the mobile home park prospectus or formal deed restrictions.

Rebuild Florida has received $346 million for the housing program. The agency says they’re being smart about how they spend the money to ultimately help more Floridians.  

In December, Rebuild Florida had completed less than one in ten projects.

Rebuild Florida has significantly picked up the pace of processing claims since 8 On Your Side first began exposing the issue. Now, they have completed approximately one in five projects.

“Under Secretary (Dane) Eagle’s leadership there has been approximately a 470 percent increase,” a spokeswoman for the agency said.

In the meantime, Gary and Debbie are thrilled the governor is taking action on their behalf.

“That is wonderful, thank you Jesus,” said Deborah.

“This gives me new hope,” Gary added.

8 On Your Side will stay on this story to ensure Debbie and Gary receive their replacement sheds and carports.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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