Housing the Displaced Is Rife With Delays

By Spencer S. Hsu and Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 23, 2005

Nearly four weeks after Hurricane Katrina displaced more Americans from their homes than any event in at least 60 years, efforts to find housing for 200,000 families from the devastated Gulf Coast are getting bogged down, according to federal, state and private sector officials.

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials complain of a drastic shortage of sites suitable to state and local officials for the huge trailer parks that FEMA hopes to establish for evacuees. Local and parish leaders say FEMA's plans to supply the trailer parks with water, sewer, electricity and other services are haphazard or nonexistent, and the encampments -- some of which could include 15,000 units -- are bigger than any the agency has ever established.

Builders of manufactured housing say red tape has bottlenecked contract orders, which may take as long as 12 months to fill. Congress is considering a new program to offer housing vouchers to the displaced. Meanwhile, planners from Baton Rouge, La., to Washington fear there is no government-wide housing strategy, and no one is certain how many displaced families will return to the Gulf Coast.

In the confusion, White House planners are weighing in, according to agencies involved in the talks. But delays are compounding what some housing advocates call a slow-motion replay of the bureaucratic divisions that crippled the emergency response for days after Katrina hit.

"We seem to be in this new state of chaos," said Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. "Nobody's on message, because everybody's got their own message."

In New Orleans last week, President Bush vowed to clear shelters by mid-October. "We will do what it takes. We will stay as long as it takes" to help rebuild the region, Bush said.

Huge amounts of federal money are already flowing. Congress has approved $23 billion for temporary housing and individual relief aid.

Authorities say they are losing a race against time to provide temporary housing for the months or years it will take to rebuild New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities.

The task is enormous. Federal officials told Congress on Sept. 8 that as many as 1 million people were displaced by the storm and 450,000 families were homeless, figures that echo assumptions in a FEMA hurricane planning exercise last year.

In reality, the numbers are far more murky. FEMA now estimates that 300,000 families are homeless, and 200,000 will require government housing. But the manufactured housing industry says it will take six months to build 40,000 trailers. Of 600 trailer sites proposed so far, only 5 percent have ready access to water, sewer, power and other services.

On Tuesday, 22 days after Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast, aides to Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) asked FEMA to move as many as 50,000 people from shelters into hotels and motels for as many as 90 days. The stop-gap measure is needed to meet Bush's goal while officials debate how and where to establish trailer cities -- or other options for evacuees -- and who will pay for them, said Jerry Jones, state director of facilities and planning.

"We just don't have the time to develop new temporary housing communities," Jones said. "We need to get them out of these shelters. . . . We don't want to just warehouse our people."

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.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company