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Housing the Displaced Is Rife With Delays
Surveys of evacuees in Houston shows those left behind are among the least self-sufficient: About two-thirds do not have bank accounts, credit cards or insurance; most had family incomes of less than $20,000, and half have children younger than 18.
With trailers proving a less than ideal solution, FEMA officials are lining up 18,000 units in hotels, motels, cruise ships, closed military bases and rental units.
FEMA initially ordered 125,000 trailers that it planned to deploy as close as possible to affected cities, following a playbook the agency relied on after four Florida hurricanes and its New Orleans exercise last year. In the days after Katrina hit, FEMA officials claimed to have 6,000 FEMA-owned trailers in Louisiana, hoped to install 30,000 homes every two weeks and planned vast campuses of as many as 15,000 units, according to various media reports.
Testifying to Congress last week, David Roberson, speaking for the Manufactured Housing Institute, noted production capacity limits and said that the industry built 130,000 homes in all of 2004.
Another critical choke point is the shortage of land served by utilities. FEMA teams have examined 600 proposed sites, but "only about 33 had the infrastructure in place," said FEMA area housing commander Ron Sherman.
Contractors also cite paperwork problems. Roberson said as of Sept. 15, FEMA had pushed through contracts for only 10,000 homes, while orders for 18,000 were pending for days.
Jim McIntyre, FEMA's chief housing spokesman, said 350 to 500 trailers are being delivered a day. "The magnitude of contracts is causing some delays, but all are going through as quickly as possible. No one is holding up funding," McIntyre said. As of Thursday, FEMA had about 3,100 trailers in Louisiana and 7,000 in Mississippi and Alabama, he said, of which 1,134 were occupied.
But in Baton Rouge and Washington, some state and federal officials say FEMA's reliance on trailers is increasingly unpopular at all levels of government and in both political parties. Some are alarmed at reports that FEMA trailer cities in Florida have regressed into "ghettos of despair," in Newt Gingrich's words, with high rates of poverty, crime and social strain.
Several Louisiana parish leaders have balked at relaxing zoning or other standards to permit settlements, noting that most local governments are already poor, have limited infrastructure and suffered Katrina damage.
"We just question whether it can happen if they are going to take the traditional approach" of housing tens of thousands of people in rows of trailers, possibly for two years, Jones said. "We need to make sure that FEMA recognizes the importance of creating a community that they have not done before."
In Washington, some agency officials, lawmakers and non-governmental groups want to give more responsibility to agencies such as the Housing and Urban Development, and Health and Human Services.
Rental occupancy rates and rents are at historic lows, with 1.1 million units available in the South for less than $700 a month on average, according to Edgar O. Olsen, a housing economist at the University of Virginia. HUD has identified 65,000 of its housing units that could be used for short-term housing, spokesman Brian Sullivan said.
On Sept. 14, a unanimous Senate adopted an alternative to trailers, providing $3.5 billion in HUD rental vouchers to Katrina victims -- as much as $10,000 each for 350,000 families -- for six to 12 months.
A House proposal for 50,000 vouchers is pending, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said. GOP sources say they are waiting for a response from the Bush administration, which one official said is not expected until mid-October.
The topic is politically sensitive. In his 2006 budget, Bush proposed ratcheting back the HUD Section 8 housing voucher program for the poor as well as related community programs.
No one is certain how many people want to return to their homes in New Orleans and elsewhere. Forty-four percent of evacuees living in eight Houston emergency shelters said they would not return home, according to a survey of 680 randomly selected people conducted by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health.
Joe Ryan, his wife and 5-year-old twins moved in with a brother in Austin and have already enrolled the girls in the local kindergarten.
"I don't have any plans to live here for several months," he said, taking a break from hauling insulation and ceiling tiles out of his mother's home in New Orleans. "We don't feel like this is a good place for kids."
Connolly reported from Louisiana. Researcher Karl Evanzz contributed to this report.