For Some Displaced by Hurricane Katrina, Permanent Housing Is Still Out of Reach

Forty-five months after Hurricane Katrina, thousands of Gulf Coast residents face eviction from temporary government housing. Yet hundreds of taxpayer-funded homes remain unoccupied, bringing to light the bureaucratic mess that entangles the displaced.
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 13, 2009

GULFPORT, Miss. -- James Johnson can look across a grassy field here and see acres of empty pastel "Mississippi cottages," each house an architect's vision of how government can provide safe, low-cost and permanent housing to families made homeless by Hurricane Katrina nearly four years ago.

At 74, Johnson would like nothing better than to move one of the nearly 700 vacant cottages onto his land, where he now lives in a temporary trailer provided by the government. The cottages -- with picturesque white fences and wide front porches -- are designed to be set on a permanent foundation and can withstand winds of 150 mph.

Johnson's daughter helped him apply for a cottage, but the request to the state has gone nowhere. Instead, Johnson faces renewed uncertainty this summer about where he will live and whether he can ever rebuild a life on the 10 acres he helped his family buy in the 1940s.

The unused cottages are the latest example of a trouble-plagued Gulf Coast housing recovery that has subjected the Federal Emergency Management Agency to harsh and prolonged criticism and led to charges that states are diverting federal rescue funds or failing to deliver on promises to restore long-term affordable housing.

Now, 45 months after the devastating hurricane, FEMA's temporary housing programs are expiring after a series of congressionally mandated extensions. Typically, the government cuts off disaster aid 18 months after an event, but today, nearly 20,000 families are still living in temporary trailers and apartments.

The federal government has poured more than $25 billion into aid for individuals, emergency housing and state rebuilding block grants. But states have lagged in developing long-term solutions for dislocated families, in some cases using funds for economic development projects or drafting poorly designed programs.

"There's nobody who has the ability to cut through the red tape, take the various programs that exist and figure out how to craft the best possible solutions for individual people," said Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group.

FEMA's housing problems began immediately after the storm, as it wasted hundreds of millions of dollars trying to house evacuees in cruise ships, hotel rooms and military facilities that were cost-prohibitive or unpopular. FEMA settled on putting displaced families in trailers while their homes were repaired or rebuilt, but then faced major embarrassment when some occupants developed health problems because of a toxic chemical used in trailer components.

FEMA then moved many homeless families into apartments, and the federal government pumped funds to Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas to speed reconstruction and to provide housing vouchers for low-income residents.

Intended as a temporary fix, the trailers continue to house 3,038 families. FEMA formally ended the trailer program May 1 and has said it could begin eviction referrals soon. In August, the government plans to phase out another aid program that is providing rental subsidies for 14,901 households.

Seeking to jump-start resettlement efforts, the Obama administration this month offered to sell as many as 1,800 federally owned mobile homes to trailer occupants for $1 to $5 each. The administration offered another $50 million in rental vouchers and $40 million in stimulus funds for Louisiana and Mississippi to prevent homelessness. However, states are not using all the money that is already available, even as, in Mississippi's case, they ask for more vouchers. The nation's financial credit crunch is partly to blame for delays in rebuilding, but states are also struggling with a huge caseload of applicants and a congested bureaucracy.

The cottage program was intended to offer another option for families.

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