The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Policy Changes Threaten to Re-displace Katrina Survivors

by Michelle Chen

People seeking federal housing assistance from FEMA are being pushed into a new, more restricted program, but thousands will be left behind by new rules and red tape.

May 25, 2006 – While the recovery process proceeds at an agonizing pace, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is wasting no time in wresting thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivors away from the temporary homes they had just recently begun settling into.

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The agency is shifting some 55,000 people from federally funded housing-voucher programs run by municipal and local housing authorities across the country, into a separate centralized and more restricted program

As a result, about 12,000 households have already been notified that they will lose their rental assistance, The policy shift is generating fears that many more could lose their benefits or see them drastically reduced under the new program.

Last Friday, a coalition of public-interest legal and advocacy organizations filed a class-action lawsuit in a Houston federal district court to halt FEMA’s plans for terminating the city-based shelter program. Bringing claims of various inadequacies in its assistance programs, the suit accused FEMA of making "arbitrary, inconsistent and inequitable housing decisions without using any ascertainable standards."

John Brittain, with the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the groups involved with the litigation, articulated the concern driving the legal action. He said the rollback in housing assistance shows that "FEMA intends to pretty much wash its hands of Katrina disaster relief, at least in terms of temporary housing assistance, and will expect people to be on their own."

Survivor and advocacy groups say FEMA is dealing yet another blow to residents already battered by natural and man-made catastrophe.

According to FEMA, locally administered rental vouchers have been used in nearly 2,000 cities nationwide. FEMA spokesperson James McIntyre said that after several months of paying rent through city authorities, the government decided "it was feasible to start moving those who were eligible into the standard program." Those who are ineligible, he said, would be turned over to local charities and volunteer agencies.

FEMA’s standard program is the Individual and Households Program (IHP), which in contrast to the local rental voucher program currently helping survivors, provides funds directly to displaced persons. FEMA estimates that about 43,000 families currently using vouchers will be routed into the more restrictive IHP. The program attaches more restrictions to its funds and is caps total aid at $26,200 per household for up to 18 months.

The reasons for the estimated 12,000 denials for IHP assistance so far have included "insufficient damage" to the original dwelling, inability to verify occupancy of the evacuated residence and the prior enrollment of another household member in the program.

Though FEMA allows survivors to appeal their cases, in the overall applicant pool for FEMA assistance, it has reversed fewer than 15 percent of denials appealed. McIntyre stressed, "If they can’t legally show that they’re eligible for the assistance, we won’t be able to help them."

Under FEMA's shared-household policy, some separated household members have been unable to access help after displacement.

For Jerry Peel, a 62-year-old New Orleanian living in Little Rock, Arkansas, doing without FEMA’s help is one of many harsh realities to which he has resigned himself. He said that a letter from FEMA in January told him he was ineligible for assistance from the new program, apparently because his former home had not been deemed sufficiently damaged by FEMA inspectors. That leaves him a few weeks, he estimates, before his monthly housing costs grow by several hundred dollars.

Now living in a government-supported senior citizens’ complex in Little Rock, Peel said the promise of a long-term lease had helped shape his plans to reassemble his life after Katrina. In January, his former residence, the Guste senior citizens’ public-housing complex in New Orleans, was finally reopened after having been locked since the storm. But Peel decided that Arkansas offered more job opportunities, better medical care through the local Veterans Affairs hospital, and at least temporary housing stability.

Peel recounted: "After I weighed everything, I said, ‘Well, at least I’ll get eight or ten months of rental assistance here, and I’ll be able to get on my feet at [the hospital].’ So I stayed here. But they cut it off."

Although FEMA has coordinated a program with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide special rental assistance to New Orleans public-housing residents like Peel, he said that he has received no offers of help from the public-housing agency of New Orleans.

Recalling the upsurge of national attention in the wake of Katrina, Peel said, "At the time there was a lot for sympathy for us, but half of what they were saying up front was lies."

Many properties deemed inhabitable by FEMA may still be inaccessible, because the community’s infrastructure has not been restored, or because the homes have been taken over by new residents.

Because of the restricted scope of FEMA’s disaster-assistance funding, even those that manage to qualify for the new program may still be in danger of losing their housing.

FEMA’s program does not pay for utilities or security deposits, and will generally only pay up to $786 per month for rent, potentially leaving a gap between a survivor’s current rent and the subsidy. And with limited exceptions, the agency has provided only one such assistance package per household, determined by pre-disaster residence – meaning some separated household members have been unable to access help after displacement.

Vince Wilson, an organizer with the Katrina Survivors Association, part of the grassroots community group ACORN, said the shared-household policy further punishes families torn apart by the storm.

"People are scattered throughout this country," said Wilson, himself displaced from New Orleans. "You may have a family member in Atlanta. You may have one that was sent here to Houston. You may have another one that was sent to the West Coast. And they were all part of one family in New Orleans.… So, for them to just blanketly determine one person as head of household, and cut the others’ benefits, is a disaster that’s about to happen."

The lawsuit filed Friday argues that the $786 cap – the national average "fair-market rent" as determined by federal housing authorities – is too low for people in cities with high costs of living. The designated fair-market rent for the Los Angeles area, for instance, is over $1100. Moreover, plaintiffs say that many already-tight housing markets have been further crunched by the influx of refugees in search of housing.

The court brief contends that FEMA’s legal mandate does not explicitly bar the agency from covering utilities for hurricane survivors. The suit also argues that housing inspectors have wrongfully denied assistance to people by deciding that their pre-disaster homes are not damaged enough. Plaintiffs argue that many properties displaying minimal structural damage may still be uninhabitable, because the surrounding community’s infrastructure has been wiped out, or because the homes have been taken over by new residents or by recovery workers.

On top of the confusion and economic strain caused by the abrupt policy changes, FEMA’s lack of credibility is also creating havoc for refugees. According to Bryan Maudlin, president of the post-Katrina legal-aid group From the Lake to the River, some landlords now refusing to rent to survivors even if they are receiving assistance through IHP. Maudlin, who conducted research related to the legal complaint in the Memphis, Tennessee area, said that landlords fear that FEMA will again haphazardly cut off aid and leave them with tenants who cannot afford rent.

Survivor and advocacy groups say FEMA is dealing yet another blow to residents already battered by natural and man-made catastrophe.

"All these plans look great on paper, and they don’t work," Maudlin said. "They all assume that the evacuees have resources that they do not have."

Brittain of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights predicted that as FEMA continues to whittle down its rolls, "by the end of this month, these communities will swell up with homeless people."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

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This News Article originally appeared in the May 25, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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