Lataiyyah Washington, 36, and her two sons have been living at the Embassy Suites hotel near the Newark airport since early September 2021, when the remnants of Hurricane Ida flooded out their Oakwood Plaza apartment complex in Elizabeth, New Jersey, leaving four residents dead.
After covering the cost of a hotel room for months, the city announced it was abruptly ending that support as a massive snowstorm approached. Around 10:45 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 28, Washington said she got a call from a city official telling her to check out of the hotel in 15 minutes.
The city’s order was impossible for her to follow. When her phone rang, Washington was on the bus with her 3-year-old son traveling to his doctor’s appointment. But more importantly, she had no idea where her family would go.
“I’m stressed out,” Washington told BuzzFeed News that day. “I have nowhere to go.”
As the climate crisis triggers more intense and more frequent disasters, people across the country are relying on government aid to help them get back on their feet after floods, hurricanes, and wildfires. But post-disaster programs may fall short of what families with low incomes actually need to recover.
That tension is playing out in New Jersey, where a shortage of affordable housing has left hundreds displaced by Ida, like Washington, in limbo hoping to find a permanent home in their city before assistance ends and avoid the prospect of starting fresh elsewhere.
“My kids go to school out here [in Elizabeth],” she said. “Their doctors’ appointments are out here.”
Washington said the official who called her, Amira Abdur-Rahman, explained that the city would no longer pay for her room because she had turned down three subsidized housing options offered by her former apartment’s landlord, Community Investment Strategies. There were two one-bedroom apartments — one in New Brunswick about 30 minutes away and another in Woolwich more than an hour away — that may not have met the state’s subsidized housing standards, which say that a home should contain at least one bedroom or sleeping space for every two people, meaning a family of three should have at least a two-bedroom home. Then there was a two-bedroom apartment in Atlantic City, around a two-hour car ride away from Elizabeth. Washington doesn’t have a car.
“On September 2nd, the City of Elizabeth was faced with over 700 people evacuated at Oakwood Plaza Housing Complex,” city spokesperson Ruby Contreras told BuzzFeed News by email. By Monday, Feb. 7, the city reported 232 people in 85 rooms. “When housing became available, the City encouraged tenants to leave the hotels. If tenants turned down multiple housing opportunities, they’re advised the hotel voucher will cease.”
As of late October, city officials were paying $40,000 a week on temporary housing related to Ida, according to CBS New York. But Contreras didn’t say whether that number was current, nor how much federal aid the city has already received to help cover the costs.
The city can continue to apply to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for reimbursements for at least some of the housing costs incurred through March 4 for supporting those displaced by Ida, according to agency spokesperson Nikki Gaskins Campbell. FEMA has not paid out any funds to date to the city for hotels, motels, and other temporary housing, she added.
Meanwhile, a Community Investment Strategies spokesperson said the company has been “aggressive in responding” to the situation in Elizabeth but declined to answer questions specific to Washington’s case. “CIS immediately made any vacant apartments available to residents impacted by Ida throughout our New Jersey portfolio,” Deana Gunn, a company spokesperson, wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News. “These residents were given priority on all waitlists, and CIS housed over 100 families through this process. We do not control the location of vacant apartments, but we remain committed to making housing resources available wherever they are located.”
It’s unknown how many people displaced from the Oakwood Plaza complex are out of the hotels but have no permanent home.
“They are leaving these people out to dry,” said Salaam Ismial, a community activist whose relative, 33-year-old Shakia Garrett, lived at the complex and was among those who died during the storm.
For months, city officials have been “threatening families that don’t take these throwaway apartments,” Ismial said. “If they don’t accept any of the apartments CIS management gives them, then they are going to stop paying FEMA money to pay for these hotels and motels.”
But there’s no easy fix, housing experts warn, because there simply aren’t many affordable housing options around.
“There is far less available subsidized housing than what’s needed,” Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told BuzzFeed News. So when a climate disaster strikes, she explained, “it exacerbates the preexisting housing crisis in that community and leaves fewer options available.”
While there’s a shortage of affordable housing nationwide, Yentel said, “New Jersey has one of the more severe shortages.” According to the 2021 “Out of Reach” report, which her organization helped put together, New Jersey was the sixth most expensive state for renters last year.
In Union County, where Elizabeth is located, an estimated 41% of households are renters, making it the county with the third-highest proportion of renters in the state, according to the report. Moreover, the fair market rent of a two-bedroom apartment in Union County is roughly $1,643, per the report, which would require a person to earn an annual income of nearly $66,000 to afford. Someone earning only minimum wage would need to work 105 hours a week, or almost three full-time jobs, to afford it.
The Oakwood Plaza apartment complex was Elizabeth’s single largest source of low-income housing, said Linda Flores-Tober, executive director of the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless, and then Ida “wiped out the only place that people with moderate and low income have to go.”
“There’s just no affordable housing, and that’s the solution to the whole problem,” she added. “What a mess!”
Washington was home with her kids when Ida, no longer a hurricane, slammed into New Jersey on the evening of Sept. 1. She was caught off guard by the storm’s intensity, which led to record-setting rainfall in nearby Newark and caused the Elizabeth River to overflow.
“I was there during the rain,” Washington said. “It was scary. I just prayed to God that everything would just work out.”
Unlike other apartments in the sprawling complex, she said, hers was left relatively unscathed. But the next day, the property owner, Community Investment Strategies, instructed all residents to evacuate. She didn’t take much, just clothes for her family to last a few days, thinking they’d be able to come back. She said she never got that opportunity.
The complex remains shuttered and fenced off, although the management company told BuzzFeed News that it hopes to reopen 6–12 months from now.
Washington most regrets not having family photos, especially photos of her boys. “My son just graduated eighth grade,” she said. “All his pictures were in there.”
Apart from at least one night at a temporary shelter at a local high school, Washington and her two kids have been living in a rotation of Embassy Suites rooms.
Doing simple things like making meals and laundry has been hard, she said. “There’s no kitchen. You can’t cook,” she said. “They got a little refrigerator that can’t hold a lot of stuff.”
There are laundry machines at the hotel but not enough to meet the demand of all the former Oakwood tenants. “There are only two washers and two dryers,” she said.
Perhaps the most stressful moments, she said, were when her sons’ schools temporarily went virtual due to a spike in local COVID-19 cases. Her teenager would have to log on for school at 7:45 a.m., while her younger son would run around the room, she said. Responsible for their childcare, she has found it impossible to get a job, even a part-time one, said Washington, who’d previously gotten work through a temp agency. “I just have nobody to watch my babies.”
On Jan. 28, the city ordered her family to move out of the Embassy Suites. Washington called Ismial for help. He told her to stay at the hotel. Then he tried unsuccessfully to get Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage on the phone.
“She can’t be on the street,” Ismial said that same day. “We have a storm coming.”
When Washington returned from taking her youngest son to the doctor that afternoon, she didn’t check out. And no one from the city or the hotel made her. Meanwhile, the winter storm descended on Elizabeth, dropping about 8.5 inches of snow.
On Monday, Jan. 31, Washington got another, similar call from the city. This time, they told her to move out by 3 p.m. that day.
Washington and Ismial went to city hall to confront the officials about the decision. Again, the city relented and set a new deadline: Thursday. By now other former tenants started hearing they’d also be kicked out of the hotel by the week’s end.
On Thursday, Washington said, a hotel housekeeper knocked on her door to warn her family that they were due to check out soon. But by nightfall, Washington had received a one-day extension. Other families also received extensions, although BuzzFeed News could not confirm for how long.
Meanwhile, Ismial said his requests to sit down with the city, rental property owners, and federal authorities to come up with a targeted plan to help the displaced Oakwood Plaza residents have been ignored.
Speaking from the Embassy Suites lobby on Thursday night, he told BuzzFeed News: “There are a lot of tears in this hotel right now.”
Then on a rainy Friday afternoon, a week after that first call from the city, Washington’s family was officially kicked out of the Embassy Suites. The local police were there, Washington said, asking her what time she planned to leave. She said she told them as soon as her kids got back from school.
“When my kids got out of school, we just left,” Washington said. Her family’s belongings filled a few hotel dollies: a mix of clothes, toys, and food, largely packaged in plastic bags.
When asked about Washington’s eventual removal and the reason local law enforcement was there, city spokesperson Contreras responded: “Hotel personnel advised Ms. Washington to leave the premises.”
Washington’s younger brother picked up the family and drove them to her mom’s apartment in Elizabeth. It’s just another temporary situation, she said. Her mother lives in subsidized housing and Washington doesn’t want to jeopardize that by squatting there long-term with her kids.
By Monday morning, Washington, with the help of her mom, had started searching for a new home. “I need my own apartment,” she said.
Alexandra Applegate contributed reporting to this story.