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Rent snafus plague hurricane evacuees

FEMA, the U.S. government’s disaster relief agency, says help is on the way for evacuees caught in a frustrating bureaucratic tangle that's snarling hurricane survivors' ability to find and occupy housing. Evacuees have their doubts.
Hurricane Katrina evacuee Shawn Williams, right, and her son, Aaron, stand Saturday outside their Pearland, Texas, apartment complex — two victims of a bureaucratic snafu that complicates their ability to recover from the impact of Hurricane Katrina. Pat Sullivan / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Only $114 a month stands between Shawn Williams, a Hurricane Katrina evacuee, and eviction from her temporary apartment in suburban Houston.

Williams can afford to pay out of her own pocket and is willing to do so to make up the difference between the $633 voucher she gets in federal housing aid and the apartment’s $747 rent. But a bureaucratic snag prevents her from closing the gap on her own.

Now, after paying the entire rent herself for months because the landlord cannot accept the voucher, Williams says she is running out of money and fears losing the two-bedroom apartment where she has lived with her disabled husband and teenage son since fleeing New Orleans more than two months ago.

The government’s disaster relief agency says help is on the way for Williams and other evacuees caught in the frustrating tangle that prevents landlords from accepting more rent money than what Washington is willing to cover.

Prices outstrip government help
It is a problem in Houston and elsewhere where rents set by the market outpace the government’s gauge for determining aid levels. For families, it is making it harder to find long-term housing. For cash-strapped cities, it is adding to their financial woes and depleting their resources for helping hurricane victims.

“These vouchers are pretty much worthless because they don’t cover the full amount of the rent,” Williams, 40, said in a telephone interview from the Tranquility Bay apartment complex in Pearland, Texas.

Federal officials said they could not say how many Katrina victims have been affected. Houston officials said as many as 6,000 additional rental units could be opened to families using federal vouchers if they were allowed to pay part of the rent.

Since Katrina hit on Aug. 29, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has provided $3.4 billion in housing assistance to evacuated victims. The money goes directly to victims or to state and local governments as reimbursement for their costs in housing hundreds of thousands of evacuees.

Housing officials say FEMA reimburses only as much as a federal measure of average rental costs, which differs by city. In some cases, local officials are unwilling to accept extra payments from tenants for fear that FEMA will not pick up its share.

The agency now is allowing some flexibility for reimbursements, including increasing the level of local rental costs and letting evacuees contribute to rental payments, spokeswoman Nicol Andrews said.

Last month, FEMA circulated an internal e-mail clarifying the policy; it is not clear whether the information went to local housing officials.

Hassles in Houston ...
The agency is preparing a statement to assure Houston housing officials, and FEMA’s acting director, R. David Paulison, has told the city that FEMA will “pay a fair price, but would not be gouged,” Andrews said.

The city is awaiting official word. Until then, Houston will not pay the rent for people in apartments that cost more than FEMA will subsidize, said John Walsh, deputy chief of staff to Houston Mayor Bill White.

Houston has issued vouchers for long-term housing to about 18,000 of an estimated 40,000 families who will need it by the year’s end, but the city anticipates that another 14,000 evacuees soon will move out of hotels.

Houston has received $37.2 million from FEMA to repay initial housing costs for evacuees, and it expects to get an additional $101 million for expenses through Jan. 31. Even so, Walsh fears the city will not be reimbursed for payments above the voucher levels. “Until we get a written confirmation, we’re not going to expose ourselves,” he said.

... Atlanta and Baton Rouge
In Atlanta, FEMA provided $5.7 million in housing aid for hurricane evacuees, said Sandra Allen Walker, deputy chief of staff to Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. The city contributed an additional $400,000, Walker said, but that still does not cover the total expenses.

“What we are seeking is for the federal government to pick up the gap,” Walker said. “The amount that they offer is not commensurate with the market rate for living in Atlanta.”

In Baton Rouge, La., dozens of people are on a waiting list for housing where they can pay part of the cost, said Robert McNeese, the city’s director of community development.

“There are not any apartments that fall under fair market rents anymore, so the clients have to make up the difference,” McNeese said.

Deadline: Dec. 1
Compounding the problem is FEMA’s Dec. 1 deadline to move all evacuees out of hotels and into apartments or other long-term housing. Housing advocates estimate that more than 157,000 evacuees still are in hotel rooms in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma alone.

In Los Angeles, at least 96 percent of the metropolitan area’s estimated 2 million rental units are full, and advocates are scrambling to find homes for at least 4,000 evacuees asking for help.

As of last week, evacuees were living in about 600 hotel rooms, said Tara Bannister, executive director of the California Apartment Association. She said FEMA’s cap on rental assistance in Los Angeles was “far below” what units cost.

Moreover, “if a unit were going that cheap to begin with, it’s usually already full,” she said.

The problem is particularly prevalent in Texas, where landlords are beginning the eviction process against evacuees, some of whom have been unable to pay rent for the past two months.

“I have a lot of residents who are very angry with me,” said Kirk Tate of Orion Real Estate Services in Houston, who manages about 16,000 apartment units in Texas. “But we may wake up six, seven months down the road and we would still have this.”