April 27, 2006
Evacuees Find Housing Grants Will End Soon
By SHAILA DEWAN
HOUSTON, April 21 — Thousands of hurricane evacuees who counted on a year of free housing and utilities are being told by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that they are no longer eligible for such help and must either pay the rent themselves or leave.
Of about 55,000 families who were given long-term housing vouchers, nearly a third are receiving notices that they no longer qualify, FEMA officials said. For the rest, benefits are also being cut: they will have to sign new leases, pay their own gas and electric bills and requalify for rental assistance every three months.
The process has been marked by sharp disagreements between the agency and local officials, and conflicting information given to evacuees about their futures. Although agency officials say they never promised a full year of free housing, many local officials around the country say yearlong vouchers were exactly what FEMA agreed to provide.
[The agency was sharply criticized in draft bipartisan recommendations to be released Thursday by a Senate committee, which said the agency functioned so poorly during Hurricane Katrina that Congress should abolish it and rebuild a more powerful agency.]
In the desperate weeks after Hurricane Katrina, the vouchers helped stabilize the lives of evacuees who had bounced from place to place while trying to find missing family members and deal with mysterious skin rashes, shellshocked children and reams of red tape. At least, the vouchers promised, they would not have to worry about shelter.
Now, eight months later, the notices have panicked evacuees and raised the ire of local officials and landlords, who say FEMA is reneging on a promise and dismantling a program that is helping more people and is far less expensive than other housing solutions like trailers.
To make matters worse, advocates and local officials say, many evacuees either do not know why they have been found ineligible or have been given spurious reasons. Many notices do not even give a deadline, saying only, "You will not be asked to leave before April 30."
"We believe that many of the people who received notice that they're ineligible are eligible," said Mayor Bill White of Houston, where more than 9,000 of the 35,000 families on vouchers have been determined to be unqualified, raising fears of mass homelessness.
In an effort to persuade FEMA to reconsider, Mr. White has gone so far as to send teams of building inspectors to New Orleans to photograph evacuees' destroyed homes.
David Garrett, FEMA's acting director of recovery, said the agency had promised only to reimburse for "up to" 12 months of housing. But the cities that actually issued the vouchers, including Houston, Memphis and Little Rock, Ark., said the agency had agreed in negotiations to pay for the full term.
Although the paperwork accompanying the vouchers in Houston did say they were good for "up to" 12 months, local officials in all three cities said evacuees had been told, without contradiction from FEMA, that they would last a year.
"They knew exactly what we were doing," said Buddy Grantham, the chief operating officer of the Joint Hurricane Housing Task Force for Houston, which issued the 12-month vouchers in anticipation of being reimbursed by FEMA. "We were totally transparent."
Agency officials say fairness and the law prevent them from leaving the voucher system in place. The programs were hurriedly set up by state and local governments under FEMA guidelines for emergency housing, which is available to virtually anyone from a disaster-stricken area but is not intended to be used for extended periods.
Now, the agency is converting the families to its more traditional, and stricter, long-term housing program, the individual assistance program. Many people who qualified for emergency housing do not meet the requirements for long-term assistance, and the agency says it cannot ask taxpayers to continue to bankroll those families, although an agency spokesman, Aaron Walker, was unable to provide an estimate of how much money would be saved.
Mr. Garrett said the program was not fair to families who did not get vouchers, but instead went directly from shelters or hotels into the stricter program, under which they receive rent money every three months. The payments count against the total each family can legally receive from FEMA, $26,200, while rent and utilities under the voucher program do not. (FEMA trailers do not count either, agency officials said, because they are not as comfortable as apartments.)
The emergency housing program covers utilities, but the individual assistance program will not, unless Congress approves a request from President Bush to change the regulations.
The movement away from long-term vouchers has created widespread confusion among evacuees. A disabled evacuee in Little Rock said that when she called FEMA to ask why her rent was no longer being paid she was informed, erroneously, that she had never had a voucher. In Memphis, where there are 1,500 families on vouchers, FEMA initially asked those running the program to reclaim the furniture and basic kitchen items issued to evacuees, backing down after strenuous objections, said Susan Adams, the executive director of the Memphis and Shelby County Community Services Agency.
"It feels like a total lack of compassion," Ms. Adams said. "A total lack of humanity."
FEMA has no record of the furniture request, a spokesman for the agency said.
In interviews with more a dozen evacuees, some said they had been told they were ineligible because their home in New Orleans had not suffered enough damage, or they had insurance covering living expenses, or their paperwork lacked a signature, or they had not appeared in person for an inspection of their damaged home. FEMA recently agreed to review its findings for mistakes.
Mr. Garrett emphasized that evacuees could appeal any decision. But according to written guidelines, the agency will not continue to pay rent while a case is on appeal.
FEMA itself has difficulty explaining the ineligibility findings. The agency told Houston officials that about 1,200 of 8,500 families had insufficient damage to their homes and that 1,600 were in a category called "ineligible — other." Some 1,050 were denied on appeal, but the original reason for the denial was not given. More than 2,300 were described as being eligible only for an initial $2,000, with no further explanation.
Some evacuees said they had planned their lives around the security of the 12-month voucher. Erica Stevens, 26, said the promise of housing had drawn her and her three children to Houston after Hurricane Rita destroyed her home in Beaumont, Tex. She did not receive much other assistance, she said, because her landlord filed a FEMA claim on the house before she did, making her ineligible.
Karen Douglas, an evacuee living with two sons in a pleasant house in a Houston suburb, said that amid enrolling the elder son in school, battling insurance adjusters and looking for a job, she had managed to put the insurance proceeds from her destroyed house into investments that would mature in November, when her voucher was to expire. "It's stressful, but I thought I had it together," she said.
Then, on April 15, Ms. Douglas too got a letter. She would like to appeal but does not know why she was found ineligible. The letter says only that she had been previously notified of the reason. "I was expecting FEMA to honor the agreement," she said. "I wasn't expecting them to go midstream and pull the rug out from underneath us."
Trailer Plan Is Revived
NEW ORLEANS, April 26 (AP) — Mayor C. Ray Nagin and federal officials on Wednesday revived the effort to place thousands of trailers throughout the city as stopgap housing for people who lost their homes .
Three weeks ago Mr. Nagin halted work on new trailer sites, saying FEMA had used "bullying" tactics and built a site outside a gated community without the proper permits. But Mr. Nagin and FEMA officials now say they have bridged their differences. Officials hope to install about 8,000 trailers by the end of June. Before the impasse, FEMA had placed about 1,500 travel trailers at enclosed sites around the city.