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FEMA Sticks to Guns on Temporary Housing

Earlier this month, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Center for Disease Control confirmed a health problem that New Orleans residents have been talking about for almost two years. Studies in 2006 revealed that many government-issued trailers that city residents have lived in since Hurricane Katrina were toxic. Government agencies now verify that these Crescent City residents have been breathing formaldehyde fumes that exceed acceptable levels by anywhere from 5 to 60 times. Prolonged exposure to high levels of formaldehyde is known to cause respiratory illness, cancer, headaches, skin rashes, nausea and other health problems.

With this official announcement, many Katrina refugees find themselves displaced again. FEMA must now find replacements for its replacement housing. New Orleans housing experts interviewed by The Washington Independent say that FEMA is — once again — going about it in the wrong way.

According to non-profit housing experts, FEMA never really addressed the need for alternative housing for the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their homes in the storm. The agency relied on “temporary” housing — meaning not-so-temporary stays in trailers, hotels, motels and apartments. Instead of using trailers, local housing experts say, the agency could have funded programs for alternative housing and publicly subsidized housing. Some developers who build community housing say that modular structures are the answer in a case like this.

Modular houses are factory-assembled houses built in sections — delivered to a site and then built on foundations. The sections are assembled into a single building. The community housing developer Family Resources of New Orleans has advocated for modular housing, saying it is generally high quality, big enough for a family and relatively inexpensive.

"Modular housing is definitely an alternative to creating affordable housing," said Paula Pete, executive director of Family Resources. Family Resources was one of several groups competing for housing funds from FEMA. The group says it would have been able to build 100 modular homes on 12 acres for $13 million, but FEMA chose not to fund the project. With modular homes, says Pete, "There is an opportunity to create an alternative housing community."

Family Resources is one of the many non-profit housing groups saying that the trailer crisis is one example of FEMA’s poor housing strategy. Trailers were meant to be temporary, or transitional, housing. Transitional housing for the homeless, for example, provides shelter for about three months; the longest stay might be 18 months. During that time, housing professionals shift people into more permanent homes. FEMA never did that. It offered "temporary" trailers for Katrina victims. But there was nothing temporary about them.

Now that the trailers must be evacuated because of toxicity, FEMA is moving people back into the emergency shelters — hotels and motels. "Even though [FEMA is now] talking about moving people into hotels — which have one room,” Pete said, "that issue of housing should have been the first thing FEMA did."

FEMA says it is working hard to find shelter for those still in trailers. As of 2006, there were 101,174 displaced people in the trailers. On Feb. 1, about 38,297 families still lived in trailers and mobile homes. "Now that the testing results are out," said Alexandra Kirin, the FEMA spokesperson, "we’re moving people more quickly. We’re giving priority to people with chronic respiratory illnesses and then to anyone who calls with concerns."

FEMA may have been aware of the toxicity issue earlier. In July, Congress subpoenaed documents indicating that FEMA lawyers discouraged officials from pursuing reports about the toxic fumes. That is also roughly when the agency began evacuating trailers.

In early 2006, FEMA first received reports of trailer residents complaining about headaches and nosebleeds. In April 2006, the Sierra Club tested for formaldehyde and found dangerous levels. It wasn’t until December 2007, however, that the CDC began testing. Now, the government says it will evacuate all trailers before the summer heat and humidity increase the dangers of formaldehyde.

The agency has been moving people to apartments, hotels and motels. But hotels and motels may not welcome a flood of homeless residents again, says homelessness outreach group the Outreach Center. After all, this time last year, hotels were forced to evict thousands of residents when FEMA ended its hotel subsidy program.

“I cringe to think,” said Keller, “of people having to leave their transitional housing [that] many waited up to a year to receive…to be uprooted and plunked down in ‘emergency shelter’ in hotels. We’re most concerned about the unseen individuals as well—the children as they get uprooted out of school and away from their friends once again.”

Some say public housing could be one answer. The National Low Income Housing Coalition has been calling on the federal government to expand the public housing program to make Section 8 vouchers widely available to Katrina victims. The Section 8 voucher program, created by the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, provides subsidized housing for low-income families and individuals. "The administration continues to create new, complicated and complex programs," said the national housing organization in a press release, "rather than using existing housing programs which are proven effective and already in place, such as the Section 8 voucher program."

Section 8 vouchers are available now only to people who qualified before Hurricane Katrina hit. HUD provides "housing assistance" for all Katrina survivors, said the public affairs officer Patricia Campbell, but this is limited to help in paying rent. The rapidly increasing rents in New Orleans — and the lack of apartments — make HUD’s rental assistance programs unsustainable options, says the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Before the hurricane, almost half the city’s residents were renters. But the scarcity of rental housing after the destruction of Katrina has nearly doubled rents.

The Outreach Center talks about the lack of safe, affordable housing. “Many of these evacuees,” said Keller, “are elderly and disabled, or single mothers with children who couldn’t afford more than $200-$300 per month before the storms. Fair-market rents in this region are several hundred dollars above that—if you could even find units available.”

The continuing trailer evacuation makes the situation worse for the lowest income renters. It is with these renters in mind that the National Low Income Housing Coalition recommends transferring FEMA rental assistance households to Section 8 housing. Government subsidized housing will provide needed stability for many elderly and disabled residents, the advocacy group says.

But public housing comes with its own problems, says Pete of Family Resources. "There’s legislation now in Congress calling for 3,000 housing vouchers," she said. "Even if we had 3,000 housing vouchers, we don’t even have 3,000 houses."

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