Florida residents worry about housing costs after Hurricane Ian destruction. With more than 35,000 homes damaged or destroyed in Lee County, Fla., residents are concerned about housing affordability – and changes to their communities – as developers become involved.

On Florida's Gulf Coast, developers eye properties ravaged by Hurricane Ian

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EMILY FENG, HOST:

On Florida's Gulf Coast, developers are buying up properties destroyed by Hurricane Ian last fall. In some cases, they're planning to build larger, more expensive homes in their place. NPR's Danielle Kaye reports that could have ramifications for the area's character.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

DANIELLE KAYE, BYLINE: The expansive sandy beaches in Fort Myers have for years attracted people from colder states, like Beth and Ralph Sampson (ph). They're from Michigan but spend much of the year down here.

BETH SAMPSON: It's just charming here. It's not like the - oh, the night life and the - I think the carpet gets rolled up here at 9 o'clock at night.

RALPH SAMPSON: Yeah, yeah.

KAYE: It's not fancy like some of Florida's other coastal areas. About a third of Lee County residents are low income or spend at least 40% of their income on rent. Beth and Ralph own a home in Fort Myers Beach. It's still standing. But in October, one month after Ian hit, their neighborhood was a mess, hollowed out remnants of homes up and down their block. Beth says many of her neighbors can't rebuild.

B SAMPSON: One double lot has already sold. And we don't know to who or for how much.

KAYE: On Hercules, right? The lot behind us.

B SAMPSON: The street behind us. It's like, oh, boy, that's fast (laughter).

KAYE: She's worried about what could happen to the family-friendly fishing town.

B SAMPSON: I'm afraid that a big condo - or somebody's going to buy it for their home and we're going to lose all that beauty that we all shared.

KAYE: Brad Cozza, who owns a real estate brokerage in southwest Florida, says new out-of-state investors, from Wall Street hedge funds to major hotel chains, are already looking at new investments in the region.

BRAD COZZA: It is a completely blank canvas in certain areas that were extremely devastated.

KAYE: Cozza says his firm has already been involved in acquiring 39 properties since Hurricane Ian. One of his clients bought a damaged waterfront home in Cape Coral across the bridge from Fort Myers for $670,000. After renovations, Cozza expects it to sell for almost 1 million.

COZZA: You're going to see values jump. And you are seeing a lot of new players that are now in the area that would not have been in this area pre-storm.

KAYE: This, Cozza says, is just plain market dynamics. Many homeowners didn't have flood insurance, so they can't rebuild. And that's an opportunity investors are seizing.

MICHELLE MEYER: Older houses in general are more affordable. And so when you wipe out an older housing stock, even just building new, period, is going to be more expensive.

KAYE: Michelle Meyer directs the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University. She says it costs a lot to build new structures up to code to make them more resilient in the face of disasters. There is federal disaster recovery money to help homeowners rebuild. In the past, states have gotten hundreds of millions of dollars from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But Meyer says it could take a year or two before that money is available. Until then, she says local officials can encourage homeowners not to sell out of desperation.

MEYER: And find a way to have them hold on to their property and rebuild their property and remain in the home.

KAYE: Meyer says cities can also use zoning regulations, like zoning for single-family homes, to help support low-income residents.

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JASON GREEN: These first two meetings we've tried to gear up towards the policy discussion and getting things in place and moving towards these changes that take time.

KAYE: Jason Green, a zoning consultant for the town of Fort Myers Beach, spoke at the local planning agency's meeting in December. Green says he doesn't think zoning in the town will change much.

GREEN: There are some duplexes. There's a few triplexes and quads kind of worked in there over the years. But for the most part, you'll see that there are single family homes.

KAYE: But there are a lot of investors who will push for bigger developments. They were doing so even before Ian hit. Joanne Semmer has been trying to stop one.

JOANNE SEMMER: Southwest Florida has a different flavor, you know, to it. And we really don't want to become another Miami. But money talks.

KAYE: Semmer has lived near Fort Myers Beach for more than 50 years. She's president of the Ostego Bay Marine Science Center.

SEMMER: I live near the commercial fishing docks and working waterfront.

KAYE: In 2020, Semmer and her brother sued Lee County after it rezoned to allow a high-rise apartment complex across the street from her home. They won. But one month before Hurricane Ian, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and his cabinet overturned that decision, allowing the project to move forward and paving the way for more density across Lee County's hurricane-prone areas. And now...

SEMMER: We were kind of ground zero on Hurricane Ian.

KAYE: Semmer says she's frustrated by efforts to develop the waterfront.

SEMMER: The developers want to come in and take over our working waterfront and build condominiums. So many of our areas are being sold out.

KAYE: But she'll keep fighting to preserve the character of the town. Danielle Kaye, NPR News, Fort Myers.

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