Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Eight months out, flood victims still treading water

Charlie Eastham, the president of the Housing Fellowship board of trustees and member of the Iowa City Planning and Zoning Commission, has long had a broad perspective on housing issues. But the retired university employee’s perspective has grown even broader during the nearly eight months that he and his wife, Karen Fox, have been displaced from their flood-damaged home at 37 Colwyn Court in the Idyllwild neighborhood.

The couple’s story serves as a timely reminder that, although the floodwaters receded months ago, many area families are still struggling to get their heads above water and that many area agencies need more donations of time, money and labor to help meet these families’ long-term needs. It also illustrates how many displaced families are moving back into the “500-year” floodplain — not because they don’t know better — but because they think they have no other financial options.

Eastham and Fox — with the help of friends and family — managed to remove all the furniture and appliances before their condo filled with 40 inches of water last June. But they’ve had both their lives and their finances turned upside by the devastating financial loss of their primary investment: their home. The couple didn’t have flood insurance — Eastham said they were told in 2004 that they didn’t need it and couldn’t get it — and they do not qualify for any buy-out program. So they continue to face the hard, seemingly inevitable decision of having to borrow even more money, apply for state funds and ask for even more help to rebuild their home in a spot that is likely to flood again sometime in the next decade.

Eastham said the couple paid $182,000 when they bought the condo in 2004 and that the last assessment before the flood valued the home at $196,000. Although the appraisal after the flood valued the house at $113,000, the couple is still paying off a $122,000 mortgage with Hills Bank and facing about $65,500 in repairs in addition to clean up costs of $21,700.

With the numbers so upside down — and with rent to pay on top of the mortgage — Eastham said the couple seriously considered simply walking away and allowing the bank to have the property. Sally Cline, president of the Idyllwild condominium association, said that, of the 86 units in Idyllwild, there already have been four foreclosures and one bankruptcy since the flood. Other owners have sold their units for as low as $10 and as high as $85,000. But Cline also said one of the units, which had been sold to a developer at a very low price, was cleaned up and resold for $125,000.

Eastham said he feels he has little choice but to go forward with repairs. Because 37 Colwyn Court is a one-story unit — which is one of the reasons why the 67-year-old Eastham bought it in the first place — the couple doesn’t have the option of moving their furnace and other essential features to an upper floor. Instead, the only protection they have against the ravages of the next flood is flood insurance.
Eastham said he probably won’t move back into his Idyllwild condo until his rental lease ends this summer. Cline said only 17 of the 86 units have been reoccupied. She moved back into her unit on Monday, even though the condo has neither carpet nor countertops and even though she also has to pay rent until her lease runs out.

Johnson County’s Long-Term Recovery Committee is working to ensure that people like Eastham, Fox and Cline eventually can find some other options. And the different agencies represented on the committee are also coordinating volunteer efforts to help out all flood-affected families as their needs continue to evolve.

For information on how to ask for or to offer help, call 337-VOLS (8657).


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