ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Humming Mariah Carey’s Christmas classic, “All I Want for Christmas is You,” is about the extent of Tangela Butler’s holiday festivities.
“I’m not in the spirit,” she said. “I’m not really in the holiday spirit.”
Her living room — void of a Christmas tree — is piled with cardboard boxes. Some are filled with toiletries and bathroom decor. Others overflow with wall art and sit underneath now-bare white walls.
“I actually have to find big boxes,” she said Wednesday, as she struggled to load pots and pans into a small cardboard box.
One of the latest victims of Tampa Bay’s housing crisis, Butler must leave the home in St. Petersburg where she’s lived with children and grandchildren for six years. Butler said her landlord is selling the home in the presently-hot real estate market.
Luckily, Butler is somewhat fortunate. She said her landlord, who she considers a friend and nice person, has given her a decent amount of time to find a new place and move out.
But so far, she’s had no luck in the hunt for a new home.
The region’s housing crisis has made options few, and as rents climb for even smaller-sized rentals, Butler has struggled to find something that’s affordable on her school bus driver salary.
“You’ve got to find somewhere to go, but there is nowhere to go,” she said. “I work every day. Every single day I work. You know, morning to night. I bring home, you know, a paycheck — try to survive. You know, pay my bills on time. I do everything that the next person is doing, so why is it that I’m — I’m homeless, basically.”
For Butler, the opportunities to sleep are fleeting. Many nights, she stays up into early morning hours scouring real estate websites like Zillow and Trulia for new rental options.
She describes the pursuit as a depressing cycle. In the past few weeks, she’s applied for properties — paying hundreds of dollars in application fees — to be denied, for unknown reasons, during the steep competition for affordable housing.
The latest denial, after she was initially approved, made her sick to her stomach.
“I was crying. I was upset,” Butler recalled. “I was even throwing up because so many feelings ran through me. I thought I was done.”
To Butler, the feeling of hopelessness can be stifling. As rents rise, her salary has mostly remained stagnant. Her latest raise was by 50¢ an hour.
“Houses that were going for like $1,000 are now like $1,500, $1,600, $1,700 — even $2,000 for two bedrooms. It’s almost ridiculous,” Butler said. “You know, I work for the school board. I’m a bus driver. I just simply cannot afford that amount of rent.”
Right now, some Tampa Bay leaders are brainstorming solutions to the ongoing housing crisis.
In St. Petersburg, for instance, the city council is considering a housing state of emergency declaration.
Butler hopes they will act and offer more support to struggling renters in the new year.
“We need help,” she said plainly. “The people of your community are suffering. You know, we’re suffering and the children are suffering — and we need help.”
As Christmas approaches, there will be some joy in home Butler will soon vacate. After paying bills and various rental application fees, Butler managed to scrape together enough money to buy bicycles for some of her young grandchildren. But, that will be the extent of her holiday gift-giving. Some of her older boys will go without gifts from their mother this year.
“This is the Sunshine State. It’s the Sunshine State. That’s what we’re called, right?” Butler said. “But for people like myself, all we’re seeing ahead is just cloudiness and rainy days. That’s it.”
Nevertheless, through prayer and the counseling of close friends, Butler clings to hope. And as she hums Mariah Carey’s Christmas classic, she can’t help but think about what she truly wants for Christmas: affordable housing for her family and the others who are in similar struggles.
Sitting on her sofa, surrounded by a growing pile of cardboard boxes, tears swelled in her eyes.
“I just hope that 2022 brings about a lot of positive changes, you know, for a lot of people,” she said.