Getting our housing in order

The Stafford Act and the FEMA response and recovery plans are designed to offer temporary relief and then repair damaged structures. It was obvious very early that they will not work to rebuild whole cities, counties, parishes where much of the public infrastructure was destroyed, but we spent years haggling over the cost to repair or rebuild every building, every sewer pipe, every street. From the beginning, the Administration’s response to every proposal from Congress, MS, or LA was that they did not want to create new programs or establish new precedents.

Brian Martin’s comment provided what I’ve needed for days – a lede into this discussion of the housing controvery on the Coast as a result of FEMA’s one-size-fits-all rules.

Post-Katrina housing, always a hot-button issue, has never been a hotter.

Thousands of cottages housing hurricane victims on the Mississippi Gulf Coast will be vacated next month, even though many of their occupants aren’t ready to move and may have no place to go if forced out.

Not only is the housing issue hot, for Sop, it is a very personal one – that’s his  slab in the SLABBED logo at the top of the page – and he’s far from alone.

  • Housing issues are personal to my friends who are trying to sell rental property because the higher post-Katrina insurance rates mean the low income population on the Coast can no longer afford low-income housing.
  • Housing issues are personal to the friend-of-a-friend – one of the many low-income workers who can not afford housing – who fears his family will soon be homeless without the FEMA rent subsidy.
  • Housing issues are also personal to those mentioned in the various articles about the disaster housing assistance ending next month.

One of those residents is none other than Dr. McFarland

Dr. Wesley McFarland said State Farm Fire and Casualty Co. has at last compensated him for his Hurricane Katrina losses as part of a settlement reached for 640 clients of attorney Richard “Dickie” Scruggs and his Scruggs Katrina Group.

“I was quite satisfied with the settlement,” McFarland said. “I accepted it and State Farm accepted it. We’re not buddies. We have culminated a settlement, that’s all. “It’s kind of like the monkey making love to the skunk. I’ve had about as much of this wonderful stuff as I can stand.”

A more recent comment suggests he likely has similar feelings bout the Bay St. Louis City Council.

Eighty-five-year-old Wesley McFarland, a retired physician who lost his beach home in Katrina, pointed out that once they are removed from their trailer beds and placed on pilings, the cottages meet all building code standards that apply to modular housing.

“Don’t run me off. Let me stay in my home,” McFarland said. “I beg you. Please.”

The Bay’s City Council said no to Dr. McFarland.

Bay St. Louis currently has 64 of the brightly-colored cottages left in the city limits. They were brought in to house people who lost their homes in Hurricane Katrina and previously had lived in FEMA trailers. MEMA officials had asked local governments to allow the cottages to remain permanently in residentially zoned areas.

Councilmen Doug Seal, who said he faced “a tough decision,” made the motion to refuse the request. “The people who helped raise me live in one of those cottages, and they will have to move,” he said.

MEMA had offered the sell the cottages to residents on a sliding scaled, based on income. They would have ranged in price from $655 to more than $26,000 for a three-bedroom model. If allowed, they would have been removed from their current trailer beds and placed on permanent foundations as modular homes.

But Seal and other council members said the cottages were staunchly opposed by constituents who have made progress in rebuilding their permanent homes. “I can’t vote for two people when I’ve got 500 saying no,” Councilman Joey Boudin said.

Councilmen had inquired about giving extensions on cottages for people who still haven’t completed new home construction, but they were told legal guidelines and MEMA rules disallowed that. (emphasis added)

The Clarion Ledger provided a recent update.

Biloxi and Pass Christian will allow the cottages for permanent homes in single-family neighborhoods. All three counties and at least three other cities will allow the cottages to remain permanently in mobile home parks.

According to the story in USA Today, Waveland and Bay St. Louis are two that  will only allow the cottages in trailer parks.

Waveland resident Mary Elizabeth Shaerrouse, 84, has lived in her two-bedroom cottage since October 2007. The cottage is parked on her property while her house is being rebuilt. Problems with a contractor have delayed construction until August 2009. She doesn’t know what she’ll do if she’s forced out by the end of January, she said.

“It’s truly a roadblock,” Shaerrouse said. “I’m just trying to make it to August.”

Katrina cottages are a solution, the problem is the lack of a coordinated approach to housing – a cat that got out of the bag before the recent appointment of a housing czar.

Deep into the 2008 hurricane season, with memories of the 2005 devastation from Hurricane Katrina firmly in mind, the Mississippi Gulf Coast struggles with a series of inter-connected issues hindering recovery. The primary link between those issues: housing.

According to the most recent Governor’s report on recovery, some 100,000 Mississippians were made homeless by Katrina, and, as of August 21, more than 4,300 families were still stuck in FEMA trailers with a March, 2009, move-out deadline approaching.

On August 28, the day before the third anniversary of Katrina, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour announced the appointment of former Biloxi Mayor Gerald Blessey as housing “czar” to oversee post-Katrina state and federal programs targeting housing needs…

Two things are obvious to most folks who live and work on the Gulf Coast now. The extent of the storm’s destruction during Katrina was vastly under-appreciated by those who live outside the region. And the potential for an accelerated recovery was vastly exaggerated.

The bottom line, says Brian Sanderson, head of the Gulf Coast Business Council, is “that there’s no silver bullet. There’s no one thing that will solve the interconnected problems of housing, insurance, and all of the rest of the issues we’re dealing with — plus the effects of the downturn in the national economy.”

The closest thing to a “silver bullet” was the most recent plan for expanding the Port of Gulfport – an expansion that would address the issue of affordable housing by creating better paying jobs.

Housing advocates on the Coast, however, do not agree and have filed suit.

A group of public interest lawyers sued the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Wednesday, seeking to stop the state of Mississippi from diverting $600 million in federal hurricane-relief funds intended for housing to a massive expansion of the state’s port facilities…

The plaintiffs maintain that Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a former lobbyist, White House aide and head of the Republican National Committee, is using the federal money to pay for a huge makeover to state port facilities at Gulfport that was planned before the hurricane struck. They point out that spending $600 million on the port, which already received insurance money for damage it suffered in the storm, cannot be considered hurricane-related repair because it is  more than four times the $127.5 million the port was valued at before Katrina.

Barbour and other state officials counter that expansion of the Gulf’s third-busiest port is a vital economic development program that will create new jobs and generate tax revenue. They say the state has allocated nearly $3 billion to programs focused on replacing housing — from grants to homeowners, to programs for small landlords to repair their buildings and direct funding of new public housing units. “When all of these programs have been implemented, the state will not only have replaced lost housing stock, but will have created more affordable housing in South Mississippi than existed before Katrina,” the state said in its recent “Three Years After Katrina” report.

The bottom line? We’re not there yet.

In both the literal and figurative sense, the storm surge knocked out the foundations of most peoples’ lives. Many victims were already living at the margins.

Consider: In Mississippi’s Hancock and Harrison Counties, almost three quarters of the housing units were occupied by households living below the U.S. median income level. Over 90 percent of the homes in Harrison County (Biloxi and Gulfport) did not have flood insurance. The majority (62 percent) of housing units across the three coastal counties was built before 1980 and below the standards of modern building codes. (ref: page 68 in the Governor’s Commission report)

Now consider the challenge of replacing 65,000 destroyed homes in a post-Katrina era in which building codes, FEMA regulations, escalating insurance prices, and rising construction costs complicate the lives of even those earning above-average wages. Then, add to that dilemma a national economy staggered by crises in the housing and financial markets, tightening lending and freezing new development.

If something approaching a quick “return to normal” was expected, the expectation was naïve.

Short-sighted solutions built on naive expectations simply won’t do the job.

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