Friday, May 12, 2006

Policy shift could leave thousands of evacuees homeless

Policy shift could leave thousands of evacuees homeless
By Bruce Nolan Staff writer - The Times Picayune

A coalition of advocates for displaced New Orleans residents called on the city’s mayoral candidates Wednesday to speak up for thousands of families exiled to Houston and elsewhere who are about to lose FEMA rental assistance, and perhaps their apartments. A FEMA spokesman in Austin confirmed that about 7,000 of the 36,000 New Orleans area families now living in Houston are at risk of losing rental vouchers because they do not qualify for a longer-term federal assistance program with tougher eligibility requirements. Local families displaced to other states after Hurricane Katrina are in a similar bind, although national numbers were not available Wednesday.

The news distressed local housing advocates for the poor, who said they worry that New Orleans tenants evicted in Houston may try to make their way back home, where there is little to no affordable housing for them. “Would you want to be homeless in a strange city? Or would you try to make your way back,” asked Malcolm Suber of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund & Oversight Coalition. Suber’s group and others called on Mayor Ray Nagin and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu to come to the aid of displaced families, whether by stabilizing rental assistance for them where they are, or preferably, opening more affordable housing in New Orleans to receive them.

The scarcity of low-cost housing remains one of city’s most severe problems, affecting the ability of some businesses to reopen, as well as the future of schools and neighborhoods. Nine months after the storm, fewer than 1,000 public housing units have re-opened to accept former tenants. Before the storm, the city had 14,000 units. Neither Landrieu nor Nagin immediately responded to requests for comment. Published reports in other cities, including Houston and Charlotte, N.C., describe local officials’ alarm at FEMA’s decision to switch tens of thousands of tenants from an emergency, few-questions-asked housing program that directly paid landlords, to a longer-term voucher program with tougher eligibility requirements. FEMA originally told families their aid was up June 1.

In Houston, where it appears that about 20 percent of households cannot meet the eligibility standards, that deadline has been extended by a month. Part of the problem, Suber and others said, is that FEMA had assured tenants, landlords and city and state officials who distributed the housing funds that the agency would commit to 12 months of support. “FEMA is breaking a promise it made to these people,” said Suber. But Frank Mansell, a FEMA spokesman in Austin, said the families have known for weeks or months that this switch was coming. Mansell said most families are ineligible because of deficiencies in paperwork — an incomplete form, for instance — or because FEMA believes their New Orleans homes are habitable. But Houston Mayor Bill White has questioned FEMA’s eligibility requirements.

Last month he went so far as to send Houston building inspectors to New Orleans to document wrecked houses that FEMA said could be lived in, the Houston Chronicle reported. Still other families were ineligible for further housing aid because, paradoxically, they were homeless in New Orleans, said FEMA representative Ross Fredenburg in Baton Rouge. The logic is that the emergency rental assistance was available only to displaced homeowners or renters, meaning homeless people were ineligible from the get-go and cannot be given extended aid now, said Fredenburg. “We can’t help them if they didn’t have a residence before,” he said. Mansell said those families were being referred to other federal programs.


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