The big story in the South Central region is that thousands of 2005 hurricane evacuees will enter the rental market this spring in an environment where finding an affordable apartment is like striking gold.

It all starts with the transition of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) rental subsidy program to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). FEMA has been providing rental assistance to thousands of households affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. HUD took over FEMA rental payment for hurricane victims Dec. 1, 2007.

Under the FEMA-paid, HUD-administered program, the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP), households will start to foot the bill for their housing beginning March 1. Program participants will pay a portion of the cost, which will begin at $50 per month and incrementally increase each month thereafter until the program concludes March 1, 2009. In many cases, these individuals are living in market-rate apartments. The goal is to get them to selfsufficiency; however, concerns have been raised about the transition.

“When the DHAP program started, all the case managers were not even fully trained and in place, and whether the kind of case management that HUD is going to provide really gets citizens to pre-storm sustainability is questionable,” said Lisa Woodruff-White, deputy secretary for the Louisiana Department of Social Services.

Woodruff-White said her office met with FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison to discuss concerns with the program in mid-January, and FEMA promised her a meeting soon with HUD staff to discuss the program.

Woodruff-White was seeking clarification on how many people are eligible for the assistance under the program. “Because we don’t have good data exchange between the federal government and Louisiana, we aren’t sure where these people are,” Woodruff-White said. “We wanted [FEMA and HUD] to stop the program until we know where these people are. Many people may be eligible, and we don’t want these people to be left out. But FEMA said, ‘We can’t stop. We have to get these people out of these trailers.’”

Push to close trailer sites

FEMA quietly began clearing out trailer parks in New Orleans, with eviction notices showing up on doors in mid- October 2007. The eviction notices, which came more than a year before the March 1, 2009, date that FEMA used when it said it would discontinue its temporary housing assistance programs, stated that residents had 30 days to vacate.

At the end of last November, FEMA announced it would close all temporary trailer sites in Louisiana by May of this year. The decision affects 6,500 households living at more than 50 sites.

Here’s the catch about the DHAP: It increases rents March 1 regardless of when a resident enters the program. So a resident living in a FEMA trailer in the New Orleans Youth Study Center (a site slated for closure April 30) won’t be paying $50 for rent the first month that she is transitioned to a market-rate unit. She will have to pay $150 toward rent for May, provided she is able to transition to an apartment immediately. That amount covers March and April rents too, since the $50 increments began in March.

The second catch? Some landlords who participated in the FEMA program don’t like HUD’s rules. If landlords don’t want to work with HUD, they can opt out of the DHAP, forcing tenants to move. HUD requires regular inspections and specific maintenance and utilities service.

“[Under FEMA], all I needed to do was report my earnings to the IRS. They sent me a check every month, and it worked great,” landlord Michael Myers told The Times-Picayune.

Many evacuees affected by the program live in apartments scattered primarily throughout the South Central and Southeast regions. Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston are two major hubs for evacuees.

HUD has been unable to find 5,000 of nearly 29,000 households who are eligible for rental assistance, which not only raises concerns like Woodruff-White’s about eligible families not getting help, but also questions about whether FEMA paid rent for apartments in which no one was living. Payments go directly to landlords.

If a household left its apartment without notifying FEMA, the agency has no way to track them, FEMA spokesperson Don Jacks told the Dallas Morning News. He said FEMA had done everything it could to ensure rent was paid for occupied units.

As more people will soon be leaving trailers, the need for more affordable housing is more important than ever. Gulf Opportunity Zone tax credits and lowincome housing tax credits will only address 12.9 percent of the state’s housing recovery need, said Milton Bailey, president of the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency.