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.
When FEMA's trailer program ran into trouble, Congress offered $400 million for alternatives. In December 2006, FEMA gave Mississippi $275 million to mass-produce pre-fabricated cottages that could be unloaded from flatbed trucks and used temporarily by families while their own homes were repaired, or that could be converted for permanent installation.
The slender cottage design, created by New York City architect Marianne Cusato, was unveiled in January 2006 at a Florida trade show and was an instant sensation among reviewers. Ranging from 300 to 800 square feet, reviewers said the shotgun-style homes evoked the Gulf Coast's historic waterside charm, could be built for less than $34,000 and were large and sturdy enough for long-term human habitation in hurricane country.
But the process hit turbulence.
Mississippi built 3,075 cottages, but many local jurisdictions refused to grant permits or alter zoning codes, apparently concerned that the small structures would lower property values. The state retreated, limiting the cottages for temporary use, and more than 1,800 families remain in them.
Last month, it began a new effort to sell cottages to displaced families on a sliding scale adjusted for applicants' income. The initiative is off to a slow start, having sold 13 out of a proposed 1,200.
Louisiana has done even worse. The state received $75 million to build its own version of the cottages. In two years, the program has been shuffled between state agencies, gotten tied up in a contracting dispute and has yet to complete a single cottage. The first is to be delivered later this year.
Six hundred seventy unused Mississippi cottages are parked in rows on a field north of Interstate 10 near Johnson's property on Landon Road. Johnson, who gets by on a monthly $1,350 Social Security check, said his daughter helped him fill out an application for one of the units. Based on his income, it would cost about $550, plus a commitment to pay for two years of property insurance, about $2,000.
Mike Womack, executive director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said Johnson "is exactly the type of individual" to whom his agency wants to sell cottages. But doing so is not so simple, he said.
Local government restrictions make such cases difficult, he said. Cottages cannot be placed in the most vulnerable flood zones, Womack said, or in places where the cost of meeting flood elevation requirements would be excessive.
"Our biggest challenge is the complexity of what we're dealing with," Womack said.
His agency hopes to place as many families in cottages as possible before grant funds run out or expire, in March 2011. If cottages remain, state agencies and local jurisdictions are next in line to get them.
For now, Johnson still sleeps on a bench cushion in a 300-square-foot government trailer that he moved onto his land after the storm. Johnson, who left school at age 9 to work at a sawmill, helped his family buy the land and collected the scrap wood used to build the shotgun house that a tornado spawned by Katrina demolished.
Mississippi gave grants of as much as $150,000 to uninsured homeowners who suffered flood damage, but not to those whose losses were caused by wind.
Instead of selling him a cottage, the state wants to give Johnson vouchers to rent an apartment downtown next to two pool halls, said his daughter, Cheryl Moore.
A cottage would be a huge improvement over leaving his most prized possession, his land, Johnson said. "I need space where my family can stay to take care of me when I am sick," he said.