FEMA's timetable for housing hurricane evacuees criticized

November 16, 2005

Current plan transitions victims from hotels to apartments by Dec. 1

Inman News

The National Multi Housing Council, a trade association representing apartment firms, today announced that it generally supports the Federal Emergency Management Agency's plan to transition all remaining hurricane evacuees to apartments by Dec. 1, though "there are still a lot of technical issues that need clarification if that goal is to be achieved," according to an announcement today.

Jim Arbury, senior vice president of government affairs for the council, said in a statement, "We are particularly concerned that FEMA's timetable may be overly aggressive, particularly its notification that it will not enter into any new apartment leases under Section 403 FEMA-funded voucher programs after Dec. 1. Since some of these voucher programs just began this week, such as in Dallas, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to secure executed leases for all the eligible families in slightly over two weeks –- including a long holiday weekend."

He added, "Providing the evacuees homes in apartments will save taxpayers millions of dollars and enable the Administration to take full advantage of the existing supply of rental housing that is available, but the timetable outlined by FEMA today means that 56,000 families, or about 150,000 people, have 16 days to move into long-term housing opportunities. It also creates new uncertainty for thousands of evacuees in Houston, where the city was authorized to sign one-year leases and in Dallas where six-month leases were approved and now FEMA says it will end funding of the Section 403 voucher programs as of March 1, 2006."

In a Tuesday announcement, FEMA officials said that less than 1 percent of the more than 321,000 evacuees of hurricanes Katrina and Rita remain in shelters, and FEMA has provided nearly $4.4 billion to about 1.4 million families since the storms.

The agency noted that evacuated families "still occupy more than 53,000 hotel rooms, largely in Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and Mississippi. In cooperation with state and local partners, FEMA has developed an unprecedented effort to assist this population of evacuees with long-term housing. Finding longer-term housing for all evacuees is the agency's highest housing priority, and FEMA is actively reaching out to all 53,000 families."

David Paulison, FEMA acting director, said in a statement this week, "There are still too many people living in hotel rooms, and we want to help them get into longer-term homes before the holidays. Across the country, there are readily available, longer-term housing solutions for these victims that can give greater privacy and stability than hotel and motel rooms. Those affected by these storms should have the opportunity to become self-reliant again and reclaim some normalcy in their lives."

Arbury said that FEMA must provide adequate counseling to help evacuees understand the various government assistance programs that are available to them. "Some people are eligible for housing assistance through a special Katrina voucher program created by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, others can receive housing assistance directly through FEMA's Individuals and Households program, and still others are being helped by FEMA-funded city voucher programs through the FEMA Section 403 program such as the one in Houston, TX."

The information provided to evacuees and apartment owners about such programs has so far "been inadequate and has led to significant confusion," he also stated.

"We continue to stress the need for FEMA to make sure that evacuees have in fact received some type of assistance and have appropriate program rule adjustments to ensure that evacuees have their choice of housing and that apartment owners are adequately compensated. We have heard from too many evacuees that they still have not received any rental assistance because of delays in inspecting their prior homes to confirm their eligibility."

Among the NMHC members are the principal officers of firms engaged in all aspects of the apartment industry, including owners, developers, managers and financiers. The council estimates that about one-third of Americans rent their housing, and almost one in five Americans lives in an apartment.

Copyright 2005 Inman News

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