A grandmother scrambles to relocate her family. A landlord fears falling behind on her mortgage. A teacher jumps to action as her special-needs student faces eviction.
As Tampa Bay’s housing prices continue to skyrocket, ordinary people are feeling the g-forces of a rapidly changing region. And, they’re trying to reconcile with an uncomfortable truth: that housing is both a necessity and a commodity.
For some, the climbing demand and soaring costs are a sign of prosperity, as once-sleepy coastal towns become destinations for people eager to call Tampa Bay home.
For others, the change is proving devastating. Wages aren’t increasing at nearly the same pace as costs and as the housing supply is dwarfed by demand, longtime residents are left with nowhere to go. Suddenly, people who once lived modest but comfortable lives are bracing for homelessness.
The Tampa Bay Times spoke to 10 people, in the past two months, confronting Tampa Bay’s housing market from different perspectives. Below are their stories, told in their own words.
“I can no longer afford to be embarrassed.”
Michelle Davis, 70, on eviction and memories of the Gas Plant neighborhood.
I had been living in the house on 6th Avenue S for six years when it was purchased last year by a group of investors. I never met any of them. I paid my rent online to their property management company and didn’t hear from anybody until my lease was up.
I think they had plans from the beginning to get me out so they could refurbish the house and sell it. The same thing happened to a house two doors down from me. The company gutted it, refurbished it. They sold it for $330,000.
The house I was in for all those years was much larger than the one they sold for all that money. I had a two-bedroom, two-bath, with a laundry room and office, paying $800 a month. I’m older and I exist on Social Security, so that was most of my income going to rent. There’s nothing even close to that if you’re looking at rentals today.
Before the eviction happened, I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I knew (the sheriff) was coming, I just didn’t know when. I felt so alone.
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They gave me 15 minutes to get what possessions I could and get out, so I lost quite a bit of my stuff. I wound up in a flea-infested, drug-infested motel on 34th Street N. I had nowhere else to go.
Now, I’m in an apartment. I ended up with slumlords. They won’t respond, they won’t do anything. I’m flushing my toilet manually by filling it up with water. When we had a cold snap, I couldn’t turn up the heat. It’s almost like I jumped out of the frying pan into the fire. I just can’t believe I’m in this situation at 70.
In some ways, I’ve seen this before. Gentrification, people being displaced. It does make me think of the Gas Plant neighborhood.
Both of my parents were from here, and my grandparents had a house on Fourth Avenue S, where I was raised.
It still affects me emotionally when I think about how the wonderful neighborhood I grew up in just vanished. I worry for the same.
I really miss Sixth Avenue. I wasn’t living an extravagant life before, but I had a good rapport with my neighbors. They called me the neighborhood fairy godmother because whenever a neighbor needed to borrow something, I always had it. I don’t know the people I live beside now. I put my name on the waiting list for senior housing, but it’s going to be three to five years, so in the meantime I’m just focused on getting people to pay attention to what’s happening, and to care.
Each time I hear about a rally or a protest, I try as hard as I can to be there. I invite my Facebook friends, I send text messages, but people aren’t showing up.
I can understand it in some respects. I was embarrassed to speak about this before. I’m typically a private person, but it’s gotten to the point where I can no longer afford to be embarrassed.
“How can you let a student sleep in the car?”
Jennifer Lumm, 50, on child homelessness and the responsibilities of teachers.
I was a student at San Jose Elementary School. My mom taught here, and now I teach here. My four kids went to school here and, hopefully one day, I’ll retire from here.
This is my community. But teaching is 24/7. It’s not just ABCs and 123s, it’s mental health and food insecurity and housing.
I had a parent come to me one day during pickup and he was just bawling. His housing situation was unstable. The landlord decided they could renovate and rent the apartment for double.
He’s a single dad of a kindergartener with autism. He was barely making rent as it was, so this was a major crisis because we’re in Dunedin, and there is nowhere to go.
I posted on Facebook asking if anybody knew of anything that would help them, because they were going to be living in the car. How can you let a student sleep in the car? And I couldn’t connect them with a typical shelter because the child has sensory overload.
My assistants and I were looking at every single listing that was coming across our paths but there was nothing. Then, when one listing did look promising, it ended up being a scam. We should have known better, but we were desperate.
I was telling the dad, “You might have to move to Pasco,” and it was breaking my heart because the dad didn’t want to take his child out of my classroom. It’s hard for any student, but this situation was so much harder because this little boy has autism. He’s very limited verbally, and change is devastating. Just having a different home would be hard for him, but having to change schools and deal with new staff and peers would have been traumatic.
San Jose is a Title 1 school, which means over 50 percent of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch. This little boy isn’t the only one going through this kind of crisis. There’s a list that teachers can pull up that shows students who are experiencing homelessness, and there are quite a few on that list right now.
Our school is suffering because there’s nowhere to live. It just makes me sick to my stomach.
“I thought, ‘why is nobody moving here?’”
Todd Gooding, 57, on investment properties and the rising costs of repairs.
I’ve been in Florida for seven years now. I came from California for investments.
I wasn’t planning to stay, but I visited St. Petersburg on a weekend just to get away and I really liked it and decided to move here.
I buy things that no one else wants to touch. Homes that are in really bad condition, and then I redo them top to bottom. My first house I bought was a three-bedroom, two-bath in Zephyrhills. I bought it online, sight unseen, for $40,000. Everything was really cheap back then.
Now, I’m on property No. 12, with eight rentals. I have three in St. Petersburg and five in Pasco County.
I used to get calls from my tenants, just for the heck of it. To chat or ask about something — we were friendly. Now, it’s crickets. I got one call last year. Out of all of my tenants, just one call. I kind of want to reach out and say, “Don’t you have a water leak? Isn’t there something I can fix?”
I think they’re all afraid to call me because I might say, “By the way, I’m going to raise your rent,” or something. Which I am going to have to do.
When I move people in, I tell them to just pay on time and we’ll be good. I haven’t raised rent for my tenants in almost six years, but it’s gotten to the point where I need to.
Some of my insurance premiums have tripled. The costs of repairs are getting outrageous, and when I’m renting somebody a property at $800 under market value, it’s draining.
My mother was a single parent who could barely make rent from month to month. I rented for 12 years before I bought. I understand the other side. But in the end, these are investments. They just are. The only way to protect yourself from rent increases is to buy.
When I moved here seven years ago, I thought “Wow, why is nobody moving here? And why isn’t anybody buying these houses, it’s so cheap.” Things in St. Petersburg were seriously underpriced. I guess people found out, and now it’s exploding.
I think it’s more of an income problem than a rent problem. Prices are still good compared to other places, but rent is high for what people here are used to.
“Don’t get too attached, this market can be devastating.”
Louie Talacay, 31, on setting client expectations for buying homes.
I’ve always been a very social individual. After doing some soul-searching, I realized that real estate was for me.
I mean, who doesn’t want to live like they’re on HGTV? I love seeing that look come over people’s faces when they walk into a home they can see themselves in. It’s like they’re already picturing their life there.
When I started in 2014, it was a buyer’s market. I could get people into a house with $9,000 in the bank, and there were lots of homes to choose from. Now, you need 40 to 60k upfront, and better be prepared to offer above the asking price. Some of the hardest conversations I’ve had to have are with first-time buyers who just don’t have what it takes.
Even if you have the budget, don’t get too attached, this market can be devastating.
There was a house the other day that got 36 offers, all above asking price.
Then, I had an open house in Dunedin, and of the 20 groups that came by, 16 were from out of state.
People are relocating here and they’re coming from New York, New Jersey, Maryland, California, Colorado where they’re selling their homes for a high premium, taking cash in hand and using that to purchase in the Florida market. That makes it hard for the people who were already here to be competitive.
But it’s really great to know that Tampa Bay is one of the most in-vogue areas in the country. I’ve seen it grow from a cute and sleepy community into a cosmopolitan center.
People are starting to appreciate this area for all of the draws.
“I don’t want to be a slumlord. I’m trying to help people.”
Barbara Mellen-Wilson, 41, on waiting for state assistance that never comes.
My long term goal is to provide housing for survivors of domestic violence, because I’m a survivor and I know what it’s like. Housing is one of the things that makes it so hard for somebody to leave. I want to help people, like the agency that helped me.
One day I hope to have at least eight units, but I’m starting small for now, just focusing on providing affordable housing.
I found a duplex in the Tampa area that was perfect. I’m not a big landlord, I don’t do this professionally, but I fixed it up. Everything is taken care of. I include utilities, lawn care, pest control, internet, everything that somebody might need to have a home they want to be in.
When the current tenant moved in last year, she asked me if I’d be willing to accept assistance, and I was. She was living in her car with three children before this, and there were a few charities helping her with move-in costs, but she had a job to cover the bills. I verified everything to make sure she had the ability to pay.
Less than a month after she moved in, she had some health issues.
She was hospitalized and had to cut back on work. She fell behind on rent.
We applied for rental assistance through the state’s program. There’s millions of dollars they have to give out to help people in this very situation, and she qualified, so we put together an application. But it’s just been all these hoops and no direction.
First, there were issues because she didn’t include my middle name on the application. Then, there would be long wait times once we re-submitted documents. Then, they accused us of fraud and denied the application when she couldn’t provide a utility bill with her name on it because I pay the utilities. Apparently a lease wasn’t good enough?
It’s so frustrating. It’s so disheartening. Just call me and talk to me if you have questions. Just verify that she lives here, that’s all we’re asking. Instead it’s hours on the phone with somebody who has no idea how the system works.
At this point, I haven’t received rent in over a month, and I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t want to evict somebody, but I need to be able to pay my bills so I don’t lose the property.
I don’t want to be a slumlord. I’m trying to help people. This has just been so discouraging.
“It’s the new mega-city. We want to build our lives here.”
Max Rudisser, 29, and Whitney Wright, 28, on first-time home buying and relocating to Tampa Bay.
Max: Whitney and I were both living in Atlanta. That’s where we met. I took a promotion within my company and we moved to Tampa in August 2021. We’re staying in an apartment by the Riverwalk right now, and we love it. It’s a great location. But we are both close to 30 and are so done with apartment life, so we’re looking for our first property to start our lives together.
Whitney: When we moved down, we did see quite a big jump in rent. I paid anywhere from $1,100 to $1,400 for a one-bedroom in Atlanta, and our one-bedroom in Tampa is $2,500 a month. There was just such high demand when we moved, it was hard even to find apartments.
There is no investment when you rent. You don’t see any return. So if we can put all that money into something that will grow in value, we want to do that. It’s a motivating factor, especially when rents are so high.
Max: Having a house is a new luxury. We have a dual income and good jobs. We’re lucky. Now, we want a place to make our own.
For us, there isn’t any question about whether or not Tampa will keep growing. We moved seven months ago. We have friends who moved down a couple months before that, and friends who came a couple months after, so there are constantly people moving in.
We get why. You have this small-town social feel with big city benefits. You have sports teams. There’s nightlife. There’s great food, and we absolutely love the weather.
We just feel like if we don’t bite the bullet right now and buy, we’re going to be kicking ourselves later. It’s the new mega-city. We want to build our lives here.
“Buy how, buy where, buy what? It sucks.”
Adrian Aye, 32, on going from two incomes to one, and generational changes.
I’m kind of stuck right now.
My daughter’s mom and I moved to Tampa from Fort Lauderdale to be closer to her family, but since then, we’ve separated, which means my rent has almost doubled. Before, I was covering $1,200 of a $1,900 apartment. Now, with rent increases, I’m paying $2,200 on my own.
There were moments where she was about to leave and I was like “I don’t know if this is the best idea,” just because it’s so difficult for us — for anyone, really — to afford it. You almost think about staying together just because it’s so expensive otherwise.
We’re trying to be better than what history shows of adults who decide to end a relationship. We’re giving co-parenting a real shot. We were friends for a long time prior to all of this, so we want to stay amicable and do what’s best for our daughter.
After she moved, I figured I’d downsize — find a place that was cheaper. I found very quickly that if I were to move, I’d be paying the same amount for something much smaller, so I decided to stay.
My day job doesn’t pay poorly, but it’s been tight. To try to make extra money, I work for Uber a lot of nights when I don’t have my daughter.
I saw this meme today that was like, “Living in Florida requires you to have two jobs, two sugar daddies or moms, and a side hustle.” I feel that right now. Cost of living has gone up. Dollar Tree is now Dollar-Twenty-Five Tree. But my job didn’t start paying me more.
I’m 32. It feels like everybody older than us thinks that our generation has had it easy. But we’ve experienced wars, terrorist attacks, pandemics, housing crises, recessions.
In the ‘90s, if you were making $40,000 a year, you could buy a home.
Now, it’s like, ‘Buy how, buy where, buy what?’ It sucks.
I recently checked my apartment building’s listings page for leasing availability and it’s showing my unit as $600 more than what it was when I signed. So I’m just hanging out hoping that’s not the case when I re-sign.
“I said, ‘We’re going somewhere better, baby.’”
Carolyn Ballenger, 60, on explaining eviction to her granddaughter, and moving in with a friend.
I have to hold onto my faith that this is happening for a reason.
I‘m a caretaker. Both of my daughters struggle with mental health issues, so I’ve always been fighting to get them what they need to succeed. It’s why I moved to Florida, to help my daughter and take care of my granddaughter, Lyla — she’s 5.
The townhouse we were living in was perfect for the three of us. It was right on Park Boulevard so there was some traffic noise, but I’d just close my eyes, pretend it was waves. We were there for about five years.
We always knew that the owners were going to renovate. We were told we were going to have the option to stay, but I guess they changed their minds.
I started looking for new places right away. I tried to get rent by the month in a motel. Nothing.
That’s when Bernadette stepped in.
We met less than six months ago. I started bringing her to and from church and we formed a friendship. We’d go to lunch after and talk and talk. She said, “Why don’t you move in with me?”
I am blessed to have my friend’s help, but it’s hard not to be discouraged or angry, realizing I can’t afford to live in a normal apartment anymore.
I was doing the math and even if you have two earners, each making $15 an hour and working 40 hour weeks, they still wouldn’t qualify for an $1,800 apartment that requires you to earn three times the rent. They’d be about $2,000 short.
I’ve always been able to take care of myself. It’s a scary experience relying on someone else, but this place just isn’t affordable for lower-income people, anymore. ‘Lower income’ — I guess that’s what they call us now, because it sounds nicer than “poor”.
Lyla’s in kindergarten now, so she’s all curiosity. This has been hard for me to explain. She asked “Where are we going?” and I said, “We’re going somewhere better, baby.”
This or somewhere better, Lord. That’s what I always say.
“It feels like the people who invested in the city are the ones being forced out.”
Melanie Posner, 28, on the decision to stay or to go.
The art community in St. Pete is really special. Everyone is supportive and since there are so many art appreciators here I feel like there’s always work, but I’m finally at this point where I don’t know if I can afford to live here anymore.
Currently, I’m paying $1,500 for my apartment. It’s a two-bedroom because I have my studio in my home. There’s nothing even remotely close to that price now, so I’m feeling really stuck.
Part of the reason that St. Pete is so desirable is because of artists making it a place that people want to be. Everywhere you turn, you see murals. The work that artists do is marked into this city. There are tons of events we put on or that we’re involved in that bring great experiences to other people, but we’re going to be forced out.
I’ve already had three friends leave, and I’m wondering if I should follow. I really don’t want to.
Laying down roots is so important to the work that artists do, and I’m afraid of losing that. Going to another city means establishing new clientele, and finding a new community. I know all of the galleries in St. Pete. I know the other artists. I have a network and I feel like I belong.
But is this still going to be a place I can live and have a career when the cost of living is getting more expensive, but my art is not? It feels like the people who invested in the city are the ones being forced out.
“They’re going through crisis. I bring them clarity.”
Rachelle Wilson, 35, on connecting families with services and increased need.
Getting assistance can be a job in itself. It’s a lot of paperwork. It’s a lot of talking. It’s a lot of calling, and individuals who are going through the experience of losing their housing can’t always connect the dots. They’re in survival mode, or they’ve given up.
That’s where I come in. They’re going through crisis. I bring them clarity.
I receive two or three calls, daily, from families facing eviction. It’s been the working family; people who have always paid their bills on time. They’ve never had much to save, but they’ve always had what they needed.
They just can’t do it anymore.
I’ll sit with families and read through the paperwork with them, helping them understand the terminology, helping them upload documents, making sure they know their rights.
A lot of people don’t realize that resources are out there. We’re here. But the sooner you can get in touch, the better, because once you’re out of your home, you’re homeless, and it’s a whole different ball game.
That’s been one of the big issues lately. People are getting approved for new apartments, but they’ve spent all their money on motels and can’t afford the deposit.
We try to catch people before they fall.
It’s hard, especially when this is impacting everybody. We’re the helpers, but even people I work with are being affected. One of our kitchen staff isn’t with us anymore because her rent went up by $1,000 and she had to move. My rent is going up by $600 a month. I’m fortunate enough that I live in a two-income household and I can afford that, but it’s still too much.
It’s almost like Floridians can no longer afford to live in Florida. That weighs on me.
Epilogue: Since these interviews were conducted in February and March, Melanie Posner decided to move away from Florida this summer because of the increase in rent. In early April, Barbara Mellen-Wilson’s tenant was approved for assistance by the state’s emergency program after representatives were contacted during the fact-checking process for this story. Jennifer Lumm said her student was able to stay in Dunedin after receiving help from the Homeless Empowerment Program in Pinellas County.
• • •
If you or someone you know is currently struggling with housing:
About: A searchable database of services ranging from food programs and emergency shelters, to employment assistance and health services.
About: Five centers located across Hillsborough County that provide guidance and resources to community members, including assistance with housing.
Phone: (813) 272-5220
About: Provides approved households with assistance for rent and electric bills.
Phone: (866) 375-9114
About: Assists low-income families with affordable housing opportunities.
About: Strives to prevent homelessness in Pinellas County through a county-wide crisis response system.
Phone: 727-582-7916 OR call 2-1-1 for the homeless helpline.
About: A list of resources kept by the county, including emergency rent relief programs.
Phone: 727-464-3000 OR call 2-1-1 for the homeless helpline.
About: Provides Housing to qualifying individuals and families, but long wait lists apply.
About: A tip sheet to inform renters about legal rights.
***** Pasco Homeless Coalition
About: More than 40 organizations working together to provide help to people facing homelessness or at risk of facing homelessness.
About: Provides assistance to renters with funds distributed by the U.S. Treasury to Pasco County.
About: Assists low-income families with affordable housing opportunities.
Phone: (352) 567-0848
***** 211 Tampa Bay Cares
About: Assistance with food, health care and housing resources across Tampa Bay.
Phone: 727-210-4211 OR Call 2-1-1
***** Catholic Charities
About: Assists people, regardless of faith, who are struggling with poverty through local service chapters.
About: A free, state resource for renters and property managers in Florida to help find housing that fits individual needs and income levels.
***** Our Florida
About: Florida’s federally-funded emergency rental assistance relief program.