Friday, September 30, 2005
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FEMA to hand out rental assistance
By Robert Travis Scott
Capital bureauToday's www.nola.com
BATON ROUGE -- Launching a new program to provide temporary
living assistance and to clear shelters nationwide of people
displaced by Hurricane Katrina, the federal government in the
next few days will begin making lump-sum payments of $2,358
toward three-months rent for each qualified evacuee who obtains
housing anywhere in the country.
The news Friday took Gov. Kathleen Blanco by surprise and
instantly opened a new rift between her administration and
President Bush on the critical issue of how Louisiana will lure
back its citizens after the dramatic New Orleans diaspora caused
by the storm. It also placed Blanco and Bush at odds over the
option of erecting large trailer parks in Louisiana for
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the lump-sum
payments, made by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will
cover temporary housing costs for “several hundred thousand”
homeowners and renters whose homes were destroyed or are
uninhabitable. After the initial lump-sum payment, further
assistance will be available for up to 18 months depending on
the circumstances, he said.
Low-income evacuees who before the storm received federal
housing vouchers through the Department of Housing and Urban
Development will continue to get financial support through local
public housing authorities wherever they choose to live across
“We’re going to make sure that victims of this disaster,
whatever their economic circumstances, get the necessary
financial assistance to ensure that they can obtain a temporary
residence for the time being,” Chertoff said. “These programs
have been designed to give families the maximum amount of
flexibility and freedom to decide where they want to relocate
and what they want to do over the next few months.
”The issue of interim housing has become one of the most
controversial and significant debates on post-Katrina government
policy. Federal and state officials want to get evacuees out of
shelters and uncomfortable living conditions as soon as
possible, but there is disagreement on where to place them until
their permanent homes can be restored in the New Orleans area.
The longer evacuees become integrated in places outside
Louisiana, state officials contend, the less likely they are to
return. If they find some form of housing in the New Orleans
area, even temporarily, they can fill jobs and help restart the
Blanco has been pushing for a program to place evacuees in
hotels and newly established trailer parks with community
services in Louisiana, but she learned of the new federal
initiative late Friday morning, just before Chertoff and HUD
Secretary Alphonso Jackson made the announcement in Washington,
“The announcement today from HUD and Homeland Security about
rental assistance and housing vouchers may certainly address the
needs of our friends in Alabama and Mississippi,” Blanco said.
“But it does little for Louisiana citizens who want to come
home, and we’d like our citizens to be able to come to Louisiana
for this interim period.”
The FEMA rent payments will be a further inducement to keep
Louisiana citizens out of state because practically speaking few
of the payments will be used locally, Blanco said. Hurricane
Katrina decimated the housing stock in the New Orleans region,
and what was left there and across southern Louisiana has been
bought or rented, she said.
“Therefore, with no housing available, vouchers do very little
for our evacuees,” Blanco said. “Vouchers don’t give people a
way back home to Louisiana.”
Blanco on Friday asked FEMA to accelerate the purchase of
blocks of hotel and motel rooms and to “dramatically speed the
delivery of trailers for our transitional communities.” These
would be supplemented nearby with services for health care,
education, child care and transportation.
“The path that I’ve outlined -- moving our people from
shelters or the homes of in-laws or friends and into hotels and
transitional trailer communities here in Louisiana -- gives our
people hope,” Blanco said. “It gives them a clear path that they
can see, a path that will help them get their lives together and
get them home to Louisiana.”
Trailer and mobile home communities have been slow in coming,
partly because of the complicated logistics of finding suitable
sites that can handle the temporary villages.
Chertoff said FEMA continues to move forward to establish
trailer villages in Louisiana and acknowledged that some towns
and parishes want them because of the labor force they will
provide. But if people decide to live in a FEMA-supplied trailer
or mobile home, Chertoff said, they will not be eligible for the
new rent subsidy.
“So it’s not meant to substitute for the trailers, but it’s
meant to recognize the fact that as we speak not everybody can
or necessarily wants to get into trailers,” Chertoff said.
Establishing trailer villages with economic and social support
services will require a complex government effort. Chertoff said
the lump-sum payment program will reduce red tape.
Sen. David Vitter said no temporary housing solution is ideal,
but the key to getting people back to Louisiana is to develop
economic opportunities for them to return. He said he needed to
learn more about Blanco’s and FEMA’s proposals to form an
opinion on them, but that whatever the solution, he does not
want the government to make the evacuees’ lives so uncomfortable
that they use their poor conditions as the reason to come back.
FEMA relief programs can provide an evacuee up to $26,200 for
the emergency needs of food, shelter, clothing, personal
necessities and medical needs. The agency has sought ways to get
initial lumps of that cash quickly to the Katrina victims
without requiring extensive paperwork and proof of need.
Soon after Katrina, FEMA expedited evacuee checks of $2,000 as
an initial emergency payment. Already, more than 747,000
households have qualified for some kind of assistance through
FEMA on an immediate basis, and 648,000 of those have received
more than $1.5 billion in expedited funds, according to the
agency. The new rent program probably will cost about $2 billion
for the three-month period, Chertoff said.
To receive the lump-sum payment by check or electronic
transfer, evacuees from Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana must
have registered through FEMA by calling 1-800-621-FEMA or
applying on-line at www.fema.gov. Applicants need to register
only once, but should update their registration if their address
has changed. The initial payment is calculated based on the
national average fair market rent rate for a two-bedroom unit.
The payment is portable and may be applied to temporary housing
costs “for any location an evacuee determines,” FEMA says.
Eligible households will receive a letter describing specific
rules and guidelines on the eligible use of the funds.
Eventually, the submission of rental receipts and other
documentation will be required.
Chertoff said the lump-sum checks and bank transfers would
start flowing this week, but that people should anticipate it
will take a few days to receive them. Those evacuees who have
registered for direct deposit will get the money sooner, he