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Mississippi Cottage Program Ending Before Helping All that Applied
State Says Some Katrina Survivors Won't Receive Promised Homes

Story and Photos by Keith Burton  GulfCoastNews.com 5/14/08

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) has announced that their program to provide Mississippi Cottages is nearing an end. This announcement comes as many residents in FEMA trailers and apartments were counting on the cottages to be their next home.

According to the MEMA news release:

"To date, approximately 2,500 cottages are providing, comfortable safer shelter to storm victims that would otherwise be living in FEMA trailers and mobile homes. At this point MEMA estimates that it has sufficient funds remaining to place an additional 400 units, bringing the grand total to about 2,900 cottages, and an additional 200 cottages going to a number of private non-profit housing organizations for their constituents."  

"There remain approximately 400 families that have qualified to receive a cottage and have obtained the required permits from local governments. These citizens will be awarded a unit based upon the order that permit was acquired.  This, unfortunately, will mean some qualified families with permits may not receive a cottage due to shrinking inventory."

“While we know that it is little comfort to those who continue to struggle to find safe, comfortable, affordable housing, I believe that this program is a great success,” said MEMA Director Mike Womack. “We continue to refine the program, ironing out kinks and streamlining our service delivery.”

Many of the people remaining are still in formaldehyde-ridden trailers located in front of homes that have yet to be rebuilt.

MEMA seeks now to classify the Mississippi Cottage program a success, but certainly not if you are among those that had hoped for a cottage and now won't get one.

GCN reported last year that the Mississippi Cottage program was moving extremely slow. In GCN's November 2007 story,  the first home was placed this past July and as of November 11, only about 655 units had been installed and 500 occupied, according to MEMA at that time.

As of April 30, 2008 there were over 7,200 FEMA trailers still in use in South Mississippi. (GCN photo left: typical FEMA trailer)

The $280 million program aims to determine whether cottages are a better housing option for disaster victims than trailers issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Most of the 2,500 cottages that have been delivered in the last year are on private property and not in group housing sites. MEMA officials tell GCN that the goal one year ago was to provide between 4,000 and 5,000 of the homes, but later determined that administrative costs and surveys indicated that about 3,000 homes would be placed. But even the 3,000 unit goal will not be met. With the 400 homes remaining to be placed, the total at 2,900 begs the question as to why 200 additional cottages are going to agencies and not residents who have applied for the cottages and qualify.

MEMA officials say the program was never meant to be a solution to the housing problem. The cottages were were seen as a temporary solution to the vulnerable travel trailers initially provided to residents who lost their homes. Residents who are keeping the cottages on a permanent basis will have to pay for them. Technically, the Mississippi Cottage program will continue through March of 2009, but the total number of home placements will end before then as the inventory of cottages runs out.

The program has demonstrated one thing, that the small, 728 square foot cottages are expensive. Based upon the number of Mississippi Cottages to be placed, and money for the program, the costs work out to around $95,000 each for the homes.

The Clarion Ledger reports that the program went through numerous changes in the last year. At first, cottages were awarded through a lottery system. But some local governments have resisted allowing the structures, fearful they will become permanent fixtures. MEMA officials then changed the process to allow more residents to qualify for the cottages.

State officials administering the program were surprised to find that local cities and counties were initially reluctant to the permit the placement of the cottages. The cottages do not comply with local building and lot requirement codes in many areas that the cottages needed to be placed. Local officials and neighbors were concerned that the cottages would drive down property values, and if allowed in groups, would eventually become areas of blight. Still, local governments know the need and eventually allowed the cottages.

Volunteer case workers that have been on the Coast helping with housing needs of Katrina survivors are growing alarmed that many of the programs to help solve the housing situation are going away.

One post was made by Kathleen Johnson (GCN Photo left), a volunteer who has worked in Hancock County since shortly after Katrina hit and who runs Katrina Relief, in Waveland. Johnson said on the GCN Message Board:

1. Does anyone know anything about that portion of the program?

2. I was advised yesterday that those without permits at this point will not be getting a cottage.

3. We have people who have had their trailers removed for installation of a FEMA trailer have been advised they are not getting a cottage.

4. We have people in hotels with their FEMA trailer removed who do not know if they are getting their promised Mississippi cottage

5. We have families who have been advised to get their lots "ready or else" immediately. I have a work crew going in this week to clean up a back yard for a very elderly lady that has not been cleaned since the storm. The problem is FEMA did clean that 15' from the right-of-way but for the elderly, without the means to clean their yards (especially the back yard that can not be seen from the street), that debris still remain status quo.

6. The Red Cross grants are reported to be ending imminently and not later in the year as reported earlier this week. That means that $20,000 will not be available in the rebuilding equation. It had consisted of up to $20,000 (each) from Red Cross, Salvation Army, and Gulf Coast Recovery. Salvation Army funds were running low several months ago - no reports in lately as to the status of those funds. The news from Red Cross is catastrophic at this time as it severely impacts the Case Managers from building complete homes.

7. The Long Term Recovery Committees are self appointed entities protected by the privacy allowed to non profits with 501 (c) 3 status in Mississippi. While they are mandated to report some facts to the State - the committees are not democratic, not equitable, not open, nor transparent. You, as the public, are not entitled to attend Board meetings or view transcripts of minutes. Nor are you entitled to vote for or elect Board members. The net result of this situation is that the Long Term Recovery Committees are only accountable to themselves.

8.FEMA is working on an RFP to pay for Case Managers, Construction Coordinators, Estimators and overhead costs. But 2.5 years into the recovery, where the volunteer pool is dwindling (and especially in summer where we have the lowest percentage of skilled workers,) the June 1st start up date for this program is jeopardized by the further loss of critical funding from Red Cross. We are yet to receive the RFP's from FEMA for this program although we were asked to submit grant submissions to the Mississippi Center for Volunteerism on Friday last in anticipation that FEMA was going to submit those RFP's.

9. There is no national Marketing campaign for volunteers to come to the coast. The job of soliciting volunteers has fallen to the individual agencies involved in recovery. There was no funding mandated for National Marketing akin to the Habitat for Humanity program. There is no plan currently in the works I am told for National Marketing. Without volunteers - the ability to complete the construction equation is severely impaired or destined for failure.

What is to happen you ask - very good question. It would appear we are at a critical impasse.

Kathleen Johnson
Waveland, Ms.

Johnson is outspoken about how she sees the recovery unfolding and has generated some opposition to her work in Hancock County, both by government officials and some other volunteer groups, but her points on the recovery are borne out by what is actually happening. Her critics usually cite Johnson’s outspokenness and her posts on her website for why they are unhappy with her, but not her facts.

There remain thousands of families that have yet to resolve their housing problems. Most of the FEMA trailers remaining are on private property in front of homes that have not yet been rebuilt. Homeowners face high insurance and rebuilding costs that they didn’t have enough insurance money to rebuild. There are also new building and height elevation requirements that make reconstruction difficult for many homeowners, their empty property often their only remaining investment.

In light of the overall effectiveness of the Mississippi Cottage program, and perhaps many other Katrina relief programs, it seems now that the federal government could have served the people better if they had given them the money and said, "Ask for no more."

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