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Families in FEMA trailers get some relief

By Jesse Muhammad
Staff Writer | Last updated: Jul 2, 2009 - 10:35:41 AM

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( - On the verge of eviction from FEMA-issued trailers, Gulf Coast victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita received news that the Obama administration will allow the trailers to be purchased for $5 or less.

Graphic: MGN Online
“It was a relief because I truly did not know where I was going to live,” said Brenda Washington of New Orleans to The Final Call.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development also plans to give these families top priority for $50 million in permanent housing vouchers. Congress appropriated money for the vouchers last year and the funds are projected to help 6,800 families.

According to the FEMA website, over 3,400 households, primarily in Louisiana and Mississippi, remained in trailers or temporary housing units. FEMA sent these families a notice to vacate the trailers or mobile homes by May 30. The deadline caused a major panic among residents who had yet to repair damaged homes nearly four years after hurricanes slammed the Gulf Coast.

The government will sell mobile homes for $5, and smaller trailers will go for as little as $1. Trailers that do not meet the government's criteria or have excessive formaldehyde levels will not be sold, according to FEMA. About 1,200 trailers are eligible for sale and families living in trailers that cannot be sold will have to apply for several hundred trailers FEMA hopes to donate through non-profit organizations.

“I applaud Obama for at least showing us some kind of attention so far and I hope it continues,” said Ms. Washington, whose trailer sits on the side of her damaged home. “This has been so stressful and most of us have been forgotten. We still need help.”

“It's been such a long history of FEMA making announcements in the media and nothing much in the way of assistance has ever trickled down to the elderly and disabled people trying to repair their homes,” said Martha Kegel, of Unity of Greater New Orleans, an agency that deals with homelessness, in media reports.

Within weeks of his inauguration, President Obama made a renewed commitment to partner with the people of the Gulf Coast to rebuild. Advocacy groups for Katrina evacuees welcomed the trailer announcement made by the White House but say more must be done.

“The administration's plan for FEMA trailer occupants is a long overdue solution to one of the most vexing housing problems that remains in the Gulf Coast,” said Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“The new decisionmakers in the administration have the instinct to do the right thing and they are examining problems like this with an eye to common sense solutions, overcoming the inflexible, bureaucratic inertia that has characterized the recovery response to date,” she said.

“The new administration is not staffed enough just yet to address this issue with the required intensity. This problem has not been solved in four years but I think we have a better chance with the present leadership,” said Ms. Crowley.

According to her organization, many families have not been able to rebuild homes because state disaster and housing recovery programs did not include them or recovery funds are insufficient. The recovery plan for Mississippi did not cover homes damaged or destroyed by hurricane force winds.

Once the trailers are acquired for the nominal fee, occupants will face insurance costs, another possible burden.

“The new owners of the mobile homes are required to insure them, but the cost of insurance in the Gulf Coast has increased drastically since Katrina and may be unaffordable to many of the people,” said Ms. Crowley.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition points out that Louisiana and Mississippi have unspent housing disaster recovery funds and suggested state officials use the funds to pay for required insurance.

The Obama administration has promised to allocate more money for case managers to help in the search for permanent housing.

Over 16,000 families still residing in apartments paid for by FEMA vouchers have until August 31 before they must seek other living arrangements.

“Lack of affordable housing remains one of the most serious impediments to the full recovery of the Gulf Coast,” said Ms. Crowley.

The Katrina Information Network and other groups are calling on Congress to pass “The Gulf Coast Civic Recovery Act” and support “The Gulf Coast Civic Works Project,” which could potentially provide 100,000 jobs for residents and evacuees to rebuild Gulf Coast infrastructure.