ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – “Bye bye, game over.”

That’s what Windolin Garcia says it felt like when she learned she and her family were being evicted from their Windermere apartment in early November, after they fell behind on one month’s rent. 

What You Need To Know

  •  Windolin Garcia and her family were evicted from their Windermere apartment earlier this month

  •  Rising rent and few vacancies make it hard for Garcia and others to find a place to live

  • Even before the pandemic, there was a severe shortage of affordable rental homes in the United States

  • RELATED: Minorities still encounter obstacles on path to the American Dream

​The eviction came as a shock to Garcia, since she and her landlord had previously agreed on a payment plan to pay off the balance. Including late fees and attorney fees, Garcia and her husband were to pay installments totaling $2,341.69 by December 15, according to Orange County court records detailing the stipulation. 

But confusion arose between the court, apartment community and Garcia, court records show, and a judge ruled against Garcia. It didn’t matter that the assistant manager had previously told Garcia the case would be dismissed – or that Garcia ultimately did pay the full amount she owed into the court registry, plus a $42.62 clerk fee.

“When the sheriff posts that on your door, you have 24 hours,” Garcia said, recalling just how panicked she felt in the moment she realized they were losing their home. “I heard the sound of an alarm. It felt like I was in a building that was burning. And I had to run out quick – if not, I was going to be consumed by the fire.”

Now, she and husband, Gerardo Chávez, live out of a 10-by-20 storage unit in West Orange County. Since the eviction, they’ve bounced back and forth between a couple of hotels with their three children, returning to grab essential items from storage as needed. It’s not easy tracking down specific items from the depths of the storage unit, where the family’s furniture, appliances and boxes of belongings are quite literally stacked 10 feet high.

Garcia doesn’t like coming here. She broke down crying one recent afternoon, watching Chávez climb the mountain of items to extract an air fryer so they can cook in their hotel room.

“Reality, it just chokes me,” Garcia said. “Everytime I see this … it reminds me how real this is.”

“There’s no balance”

Nationwide, the cost of rent is rising rapidly and Orlando is no exception. Indeed, between last September and this year, Orlando’s single-family rent growth outpaced the national average of 10.2%, according to a recent report from CoreLogic, a property analytics firm. Median rent prices increased by 12.3% in the Orlando area year-over-year, placing it ninth in the report’s list of top 20 metro areas for rent growth.

Much of the problem comes down to supply and demand, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, as many people pivot to remote work and migrate to places like Florida. At the same time, many people aren’t moving, afraid they won’t find anything else affordable. That hesitation adds more pressure to the already-strained housing market, according to Best Orlando Property Management owner Chris Bright.  

“If you’ve been in a place for five, six years, you’re at five, six-year-ago-pricing,” Bright said. “And if you try to look for something today, you’re gonna be at prices that are probably 30, 40% higher. People at that point aren’t moving, so for all those new people trying to move, they just don’t have any options.”

Indeed, between 2021’s second and third quarters, Orlando’s rental vacancy rate declined by nearly half, according to Census data. Only 5.5% of the metro area’s rental units are available. At the same time, many Central Floridians have reached out to Spectrum News recently about rent increases, with some monthly rates skyrocketing hundreds of dollars. 

Even before the pandemic, there was a severe shortage of affordable rental homes in the United States. The country’s deficit of approximately 3.8 million affordable homes is a conservative estimate, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. In Florida the situation is particularly dire, with only enough affordable housing available for 28% of the state’s poorest residents.

Yet the housing shortage isn’t just affecting those who suffer from extreme poverty. Many middle-income, working families can’t keep up with housing costs. 

“Our salaries are not on steroids, but the rent is,” Garcia said. “So there’s no match here. And as long as there’s no balance, there’s always going to be that issue.”

An auto mechanic by trade, Chávez started working in an Amazon warehouse when the family moved to Orlando last year. They arrived in March, right before the pandemic hit, and nobody was hiring, Garcia said. Today, Chávez still works for Amazon full-time, earning $15 an hour. He says he drives an hour and a half each way to work.

“Rent is outrageous for people that make minimum wage,” Garcia said. “With the price of gas, tolls, food … it’s just not realistic.”

Garcia used to work full-time, too, as a phlebotomist, but said she left her last job at the end of last year, fearful of exposing her toddler to the coronavirus. She recalls her breaking point: the time she drew blood from a man who was running a fever, and said he currently had COVID-19. 

Now, Garcia’s gearing up to start her own traveling phlebotomy business. But that requires time, and money — both resources the family lacks at the moment. Right now every last dime goes to basic necessities, and every spare moment is spent calling agency after agency, searching for help.

Just before the eviction, Chávez said he earned his commercial driver’s license after completing training paid for by Amazon. He’d looked forward to boosting his salary and providing more for his family. That was before the eviction, though, and now other priorities have taken hold.

“I needed the unity of humans”

After learning they’d lost the eviction case, Garcia turned to NextDoor to ask for help.

“The next thing I could think about was letting people know,” Garcia said.

While a few people responded with judgmental comments, Garcia said overall she was blown away by the number of strangers who shared positive feedback and offered her family help.

“The amount of love and response was overwhelming and amazing — I never anticipated (it),” Garcia said. “My plan was just to reach out … I needed the unity of humans and other people to contact me, and just to even pray with me, and that would be enough for me.”

But Garcia got far more than that: love and support, she said, along with some very generous donations. One Windermere mom, Tami Florin, paid for the family to stay in a hotel for a week after reading Garcia’s update about how the family had spent a night in their car.

“That just pulled on my heartstrings,” Florin said. “I didn’t want the children sleeping in their car, especially since they were in school.”

Florin and Garcia have never met, yet Florin felt compelled to help the family however she could. She said she has a personal connection to people experiencing homelessness: her own brother, who suffers from schizophrenia, is currently homeless in another state and repeatedly refuses offers of help. When he had a daughter 15 years ago, Florin and her husband adopted her as their own.

“The thought of someone being homeless just really penetrates my heart, especially when it comes to children,” Florin said. “I can’t help everybody, but in this particular situation I could step in and do something, so that’s what I did.”

Florin said she wanted to help Garcia and her family “get over the hump,” until they find a stable place to live. She urges others not to be complacent about the struggles of strangers.

“Please don’t turn a blind eye to situations where you can do something,” Florin said. “I realize that I’m not going to be able to fix someone’s problem, but I can help make their problem just a little bit lighter and their burden lighter, even if it’s just for a day or a week.”

After calling around for weeks, Garcia said she’s finally found a lead on an affordable unit — but it won’t be available for a couple months. In the meantime, she’s getting as creative as she can with air fryer recipes in the hotel room — and dreaming of a day when she can cook dinner in a real kitchen again.

Molly Duerig is a Report for America corps member who is covering affordable housing for Spectrum News 13. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.