FEMA housing aid runs out for storm victims May 1

Published 9:35 pm Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Thanh Nguyen will soon give up the cramped travel trailer that’s been her home for more than four years, pack her belongings into an old Toyota Corolla and rely on the kindness of others for a place to live.

She has no choice: The government is taking back the trailer.

“I’m going to pack everything I have in a car and go to my friends’ houses and move on and on until I find something I can afford,” the Vietnamese immigrant said through a translator. “It’s for however long they allow me to stay.”

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Nguyen is one of nearly 6,000 residents in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama who face a May 1 deadline to leave the government trailers where they have lived since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita raked the Gulf Coast.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said the $5.6 billion housing assistance program that began after the 2005 storms was the largest federal temporary housing operation in the nation’s history.

At its peak, 143,000 households along the Gulf Coast were living in temporary housing units.

FEMA is urging its remaining tenants in travel trailers to work with federal and state case managers up to the deadline to find permanent housing. Those living in park model or larger homes have the option to purchase the structures.

Otherwise, FEMA spokesman Jim Foster said, on May 1, “they will have to move out. That’s just the end of the program.”

Advocacy groups, many of them established in Katrina’s wake, have been scrambling to help people who haven’t found permanent housing. Many displaced residents are over 65 or are disabled, said Stephen Carr, director of the Mississippi Case Management Program.

The main barrier is affordability. Following Katrina, rent more than doubled along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Much of the affordable housing stock was destroyed and insurance rates increased. Hundreds of housing units have been replaced within the last year, but “developers can’t put it on line at pre-Katrina rates,” Carr said.

The state also plans to transform 1,800 so-called Katrina Cottages — billed as a sturdier alternative to trailers — into permanent structures. The cottages, which are state structures, are not affected by the FEMA deadline.

Nguyen, 69, lives on a $646 Social Security check, said Danny Le, who works for Boat People SOS, an organization that helps Asian immigrants.

Le said the minimum cost for a one-bedroom apartment in Biloxi is $500. He said Nguyen has applied for public housing, but hasn’t received a response.

Gov. Haley Barbour has asked the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for 5,000 housing vouchers to help storm victims pay rent in newly built units, said Lee Youngblood, a spokesman for the Mississippi Development Authority.

That doesn’t help people like Thanh Tran, 33, who shares a FEMA trailer with his parents and grandmother.

The Trans, who sell shrimp for a living, intend to build a house in Pass Christian, but have been unable to get a permit. Tran said his family will pitch a tent on their property after the trailer is taken away.

“I’m hoping they will extend the deadline more,” Tran said.

Carr also hopes that as the deadline looms, FEMA will just begin the lease termination process.

“I don’t anticipate a wholesale homeless situation created on May 1,” Carr said.

In Louisiana, an estimated 75 percent of those receiving FEMA aid are homeowners, and many of them may be close to completing the reconstruction of their homes, said Christina Stephens, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Recovery Authority.

She said most of the state’s storm-displaced renters have moved into a disaster housing program operated by HUD, but that program ends in September.

In the last two weeks, six apartment complexes have opened across the state, she said, and thousands more rental units will be completed over the next few months — projects funded with federal block grant money.

“People need to start thinking now about where they’re going to live instead of waiting until May 1,” said Stephens. “Hurricane season is starting. It’s very important for people’s safety that they be in very permanent shelters.”

In Alabama, just 19 households are under FEMA’s deadline and none live in FEMA trailers, said Janey Galbraith, a grants consultant for Bayou La Batre, the location of an alternative housing program for storm victims. More than 100 displaced families moved into Safe Harbor Estates, a new subdivision of two- to four-bedroom homes. The rent is based on 20 percent of the household income, she said.

She said the reason many families chose not to transition into the subdivision was simple: “When they move to Safe Harbor, they have to pay rent. Where they are now, they don’t. FEMA is still paying for it.”