Waiting for a Miracle
by Keith Burton GCN 12/26/06
Its been more than 17 months since Hurricane Katrina and still nearly 72,900 people are living in nearly 29,185 small, cramped FEMA trailers in south Mississippi. The majority live in some 23,244 small travel trailers, most on private lots in front of their homes that are still only slabs. The remainder are in small mobile homes in scattered but crowded trailer parks.
For all of these people, and the families they represent, getting into a permanent home will likely take a miracle.
Most of the people living in FEMA trailers in front of their homes have the hope that they will be able to rebuild. Many are the survivors that found they either had no insurance after the hurricane, or still hoping the new build height requirements and regulations will be modified that will enable them to rebuild.
For those folks living in the FEMA trailer parks, they are residents who for the most part do not own property. Most are poor who worked in low-paying service jobs. Work that at current housing costs, does not pay enough to rent a home or apartment in these post-Katrina days. They are Katrina survivors that lived in the numerous and cheap apartments and rental housing built on cheaper low-lying land that were lost in the hurricane and have no where else to live. For them, affordable permanent housing on the Coast remains impossible to find.
While there has been considerable talk about Phase I and II of the Homeowner Grant Assistance Program being orchestrated by the Mississippi Development Authority with funds from the federal government, the reality is that while those programs will help many, there are thousands more that will not be included.
Phase I of the program is to help residents outside the flood zones rebuild their homes. Even there, only about 14,000 qualified for the the program out of just over 17,000 applicants. Phase II is designed to help those in the flooded areas, but only about 10,000 will eventually receive the assistance. The key word in both programs is "homeowner." All of these people own property. There is no assistance for those that do not own property and there is no assistance to rebuild apartments or rental homes that were lost.
January 19, Governor Haley Barbour announced that FEMA will be extending a six-month extension to a February 28 deadline for residents to live in the trailers and trailer parks. Governor Barbour had asked FEMA early in December to extend the February deadline, after all, there is no place for these people to go. But cities also have a position on whether these trailer parks will exist and most are already indicating that another year is the most they will tolerate.
The crowded trailer parks have become centers of crime and conflict. The close conditions of crowding stressed families with little hope have made for a difficult life.
As GCN has been reporting for months, Katrina recovery it is more than governments can handle. The housing issue is among the most difficult. The Coast also needs jobs that pay enough to live in the post-Katrina era, and while most employers have raised pay somewhat, there are not enough well-paying jobs to fill the need. The recent pullout announced by Oreck in Long Beach is indicative of the problem. Oreck announced in their pullout that the high living costs contributed to their departure even though the public had made a considerable tax incentive investment to the company. But it remains that there are not enough manufacturing jobs available and there is only so much fast food restaurants and retail stores can pay to be viable businesses. Even doctors and dentists are having trouble finding assistants because they cannot afford to pay workers what it costs to live.
Federal and state government officials have put their hope in rebuilding lost apartments and businesses in what is called the Go Zone program, which is a comprehensive tax incentive and bond program for businesses and property developers within the Katrina Disaster Zone. But the Go Zone program does not seem to be meeting the promise of rebuilding apartments and many small businesses, and the clock is ticking.
According to the Go Zone legislation, property must be placed in service by:
- December 31, 2008 (nonresidential real property)
- December 31, 2008 (residential rental property)
- December 31, 2007 (all other qualifying property)
As of February 12, 2007 very few, if any new apartments are under construction and it takes months to build a large apartment complex. (photo right is of an apartment complex in Long Beach)
There are no figures for how many families are actually single parent families that are struggling to get by. But it is likely the numbers are high. Many of these families are headed by single women who have children that require daycare and who can't work two jobs. There is very little organized social assistance and public housing is not a solution that is expected to occur.
For people anticipating that the government will find solutions to these issues, that expectation will not find them a home. Eventually, the Coast's business climate and economy will return. But there is considerable uncertainty that affordable apartments and rental homes will return at the the same speed. Many of the low-cost homes that were destroyed by Katrina were built over decades and were homes that no longer are built today.
The possibility of these lost homes to be replaced by Katrina cottages, which are small 650 square-foot homes, in large numbers will take adjustments and variances to the city codes across the Coast. But resistance to those code changes are already occurring. Such homes impact the value of neighboring homeowners who may have been able to rebuild. What so many people don't realize is that rebuilding the Coast is not just an issue of throwing up a home in a neighborhood, but building according to established building codes that provide for a stable and safe neighborhood with sustainable property values and fire protection. Code issues are always controversial and difficult for cities to revise, especially when opposed by the public. In addition, federal officials are already indicating that federally supplied Katrina cottages are not a long term solution to the housing problem.
Volunteer groups and faith-based organizations have built hundreds of homes since Katrina. And while each home represents a victory, it is a limited one. A neighborhood is not restored when only one or two homes on a street are are built. In addition, most of the volunteer rebuilding has been done without a coordinated plan.
Most of the solutions outlined by the government are noble efforts, but they don't address the heart of the housing problem. And that is that most of the homes destroyed were built in low-lying areas that are vulnerable to storms. Even raising the homes on pillars is not a solution. Thousands of similarly raise homes were also destroyed. The older pre-existing homes were built long before modern building requirements and cannot be replicated without ignoring fire and building code issues that are designed to increase public safety in the long run.
There will come a time when all of the problems will be passed, not because the problems are solved, but because people cannot wait that long. But what is becoming clear for the homeowners and residents still in FEMA trailers is that time is really not on their side.
A better solution for residents still in trailers and do not own property is for FEMA to provide money for relocating families in permanent housing and to aggressively seek out what housing is currently available in this area, or provide relocation assistance to areas where families can restart their lives.
The FEMA trailers were a necessary and needed solution immediately after the hurricane, but everyone knew they were not a long term solution. Now, the hard decisions have to be made.