QAs I watch and read news reports of the terrible circumstances people in New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss., and other places are facing after Hurricane Katrina, I wonder what I can do to help. I am a small-time landlord with two rental properties and I want to know how I can figure out a way to lend my financial support.
One of my tenants wants to break his lease early, and I figure I could do right by everyone if I let him go without a penalty and bring in some tenants who urgently need a home. Since I am nowhere near the Gulf Coast, I wonder how I can make this happen and what kinds of things I should consider before doing so. -- Falls Church
AThere are plenty of benevolent people like you who are aiding the victims of Hurricane Katrina by offering free places for them to stay.
People are being evacuated far away from the Gulf Coast, so the fact that you're in Virginia may not prevent you from doing good.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the housing industry is working to find landlords like you who are willing to donate living quarters to those in need.
With so many apartment-dwellers who lost their homes and their possessions when the hurricane hit the Gulf Coast, the apartment industry has been working with government agencies including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Housing and Urban Development Department to establish a system for housing those left homeless by Katrina.
Because the information about how landlords can lend their services is constantly changing, the Alexandria-based National Apartment Association is compiling up-to-date information on its Web site, www.naahq.org.
The group is willing to assist interested property owners or managers in navigating the process for lending aid.
The association's site lists information about Katrina as it relates to landlords and tenants, as well as links to other sites geared toward evacuees and their families, apartment owners, and donors.
According to the apartment association, it is not a fair housing violation to give preferential treatment to disaster victims.
This means that landlords may offer reduced or free rent to evacuees and still charge fair-market rent to everyone else.
The association is also encouraging landlords who give residents free or reduced rent to sign a lease, even if it is for a short time, to provide legal protection.
Because it may be difficult determining whether applicants are Katrina evacuees since so many of them left their homes without identification, the apartment association says housing providers should contact, or help such prospective tenants to contact, local and state government offices. They may also direct people to the local Red Cross (www.redcross.org) if they do not have access to a bank account and do not have any money.
Landlords across the country who are inclined to help can do so compassionately.
That means instead of reserving an open apartment for an evacuee and charging market rate, they should consider offering evacuees free or reduced-rate apartments for a period of time, short-term leases, and free utilities.
They could also waive move-in fees and security deposits and get other residents involved in collecting such items as furniture, sheets, towels, toiletries and groceries.
Besides donating items to help furnish a unit that will house an evacuee, renters around the country can also donate money to and volunteer with local charitable organizations that are helping out with the disaster relief.
Those in the Washington area and elsewhere who may think devastation like Hurricane Katrina caused along the Gulf Coast will never happen to them might at least take a lesson from the disaster.
Although there is not much you can do to guard yourself from a massive act of nature such as Katrina, you can still prepare for emergencies. If you do not already have renter's insurance, now is a good time to get it. Obviously, much of what the victims of the latest hurricane held most dear was largely uninsurable and irreplaceable, but renter's insurance will protect the value of your things.
Renters often assume they are covered by the property owner's insurance. But a landlord's insurance does not cover a tenant's belongings. And many renters assume they do not own enough stuff to insure, but even a studio apartment is filled with clothing, electronics, jewelry, sports equipment, art, books and other things that add up.
A typical renter's insurance policy protects your things in the event you are a victim of theft, vandalism, fire, explosion, water damage or wind storm. In terms of prices, most of the larger companies -- including Allstate, State Farm and Geico -- give instant quotes on the Internet, with worksheets to help you figure out how much your stuff is worth. Online, www.netquote.com compares the options based on your Zip code and claims it will pick the best choice for you.
The cost of insurance varies depending on the coverage selected and geographic location. In the Washington area, renters can get insurance for $100 to $175 a year.
Beyond insuring your things, you should know what you would do if you were faced with an emergency. If you do not have an emergency exit plan from your apartment building, make one. Enlist the help of your neighbors and landlord and come up with the most efficient, safest way out of your building in the event of an emergency. Then, along with your family, roommates or neighbors, practice the route so that you would not have to think if a crisis struck.
With all the talk of potential terrorist attacks in the past few years, you may have put together a survival kit. If you have not, it would be wise to gather in one place a stock of emergency evacuation supplies, such as bottled water, batteries, flashlights, a whistle, light sticks, energy bars, blankets, first aid supplies, a small amount of money, medication you might need, and copies of your identification cards, Social Security card, banking information, credit cards and important phone numbers.
Think about what you would want to take if for some reason you were rushed out of your home on a moment's notice; perhaps put these prized things in an easy-to-grab place. Remember that most of your things are replaceable and do what you can to establish a plan to save the things you consider irreplaceable.
Because photos rank high on most lists of cherished possessions, in this technological age, you could easily make copies of your favorite photos and put them in a safe-deposit box or store them digitally online. You can copy other emotionally valuable things, such as letters or cards from loved ones.
And finally, if you haven't checked the batteries on your smoke detector lately, please do so. In apartment complexes, fires occur much more frequently than hurricanes or terrorist attacks.
Do you have questions, comments or ideas about apartment life? Contact Sara Gebhardt via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail, c/o Real Estate Editor, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.