Five Years After Katrina, Still Homeless

It took Charles King and his family just a couple of hours to leave their house in New Orleans on Aug. 27, 2005, but they have been struggling for five years since then to find home again.

It was two days before Hurricane Katrina struck the city, and King, 48, his wife Rosalind, 47, and their 14-year-old son managed to flee New Orleans amid bumper to bumper traffic, heading north to Baton Rouge. The family took shelter there, initially staying with relatives and starting what would become a burdensome routine of jumping from one temporary residence to the next.

Two weeks later, the family moved on to Houston, along with tens of thousands of others displaced from the Gulf Coast. During the first few weeks, they spent their days in the Astrodome scrounging for supplies and their nights cramming into a relative’s apartment. They soon found an apartment of their own for two months, after which they moved again to the other side of the city to a building where the rent was covered by a voucher from the federal government.

“It was definitely a struggle. I found a couple of little odd jobs driving trucks, but not much,” King says. “I just wanted to get back home.”

Hurricane Katrina struck land on Aug. 29, 2005, and over the course of 15 hours, caused a massive surge of water from surrounding canals to burst through the levee system and flood the low-lying city.  Investigations afterwards found that the levees were not properly designed to protect against such a strong storm, and some were not even completely built when Katrina hit. On top of that, the soil underneath the levees proved to be more unstable than expected and started to sink during the storm, which helped the incoming water push past the levees.

A few weeks later, Hurricane Rita hit, causing even more damage.  At the very end of September, a small segment of the city re-opened to businesses and residents, but many of the displaced had to wait months and sometimes even years to gather the resources - and the willpower - to come back.

The year after the storm hit, the population of New Orleans dropped by more than half from 455,188 to a little more than 200,000. Though the city has gradually seen many old residents return along with some newcomers, the population today is still about 100,000 fewer than it was before Katrina.

Yet some couldn’t wait years to return home. King needed to earn a living for his family and believed the best place for him to do that was back in New Orleans. So by February 2006, he decided to make his way back to the city alone, leaving his family behind in Houston, where they stayed for another six months as their son finished up middle school. In that time, King found work driving dump trucks to remove slabs from demolished homes, a job he still has today, and spent his nights sleeping in a relative’s trailer. In August, Rosalind and the couple’s younger son finally moved back to New Orleans to join King, as did their older son, now 24, who had been working out of state.

But it was King who, nearly half a year after Katrina hit, became the first member of the family to lay eyes on the mobile home in which they’d lived for 20 years. To his horror, he found that water had settled two feet from the ceiling, destroying everything inside and rendering the home itself uninhabitable. All that was salvageable after the storm was a cooking pot and a ten-speed bicycle.

“I was devastated and couldn’t believe it. This was everything I owned,” King said. Although, as he manages to add with a touch of humor, “It was a real good bike.”

Living in Limbo

Now, five years after their home was destroyed, the King family is among hundreds of residents who still live in emergency assistance trailers, waiting for grants to come through so they can move into a permanent residence and have their lives return to some degree of normalcy.

The King family first moved into a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency back in late 2006. It was short on space so the parents shared a tiny bedroom area while their two kids slept on a makeshift sofa bed that doubled as a table during the day. After a year, FEMA allowed them to move into a more spacious three-bedroom trailer, but the government agency soon started to badger the family to move out.

“Every other week, they said we need to get out. They’d say another storm may be coming and it wouldn’t be responsible for us to stay in the trailer,” Rosalind recalls. “They said it was just meant to be a temporary thing.”

Unfortunately, there were few homes in the city available to rent at the time and even if there had been, the family had little money. So FEMA eventually decided on a solution that would both absolve the agency of responsibility for the family and appease them. They sold Rosalind the trailer for just $5.

“There’s been more pressure over the last two years where the government has threatened to take [the trailers] away,” said Zack Rosenburg, co-founder of the St. Bernard Project, an organization that helps rebuild homes in New Orleans. “So what happened? Instead of facing imminent homelessness, some people decided to take control and move into apartments that they couldn’t afford while others bought the FEMA trailers.”

In the weeks immediately after the storm, FEMA rolled out 120,000 trailers to help shelter many of those displaced along the Gulf Coast. These trailers were often overly cramped and in some cases may have even been a health hazard as residents complained of formaldehyde fumes coming from the walls and cabinets, causing nausea and allergic reactions.

By 2007, the number of residents relying on these temporary homes had declined by more than half, with approximately 45,000 families living in FEMA trailers. Today, FEMA reports there are 860 families in Louisiana who are still living in FEMA trailers, but Rosenburg says this estimate does not include families, like the Kings, who decided to buy their trailers. Earlier this year, FEMA auctioned off the majority of the 120,000 trailers, often for $2,000 or more.

Beyond this, there are thousands of others who may not wake up in a FEMA trailer each morning, but have yet to move into permanent housing.

“There are also about 6,000 families who own homes but can’t afford to rebuild them. So they live in gutted houses or partially rebuilt homes, or else live in rentals that they can’t sustain. Some simply double up with family members,” Rosenburg said.

Perhaps for this reason, the homeless rate in New Orleans has skyrocketed in the years since Katrina. According to the Brookings Institute, the city now has 12,000 homeless people, more than double the amount present before the storm.

So why, after five years, are so many families still without a proper home?  To answer this question, it’s important to understand the sheer scope of the city’s destruction.

Dealing with the Devastation

In total, nearly three quarters of all housing units in New Orleans (134,564 to be exact) were damaged or destroyed by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, according to FEMA’s records. To deal with so much devastation, Louisiana’s governor at the time, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, developed the Road Home program, which officially launched on the one-year anniversary of Katrina and has since become the largest and most ambitious housing recovery program in this country’s history.

With the help of more than $14 billion in government funding, Road Home has successfully paid out nearly 128,000 grants so far to homeowners statewide, an impressive amount by any standard. However, some have criticized this program – and the government’s response as a whole – for failing to help the poorer sections of New Orleans as much as it did the wealthier areas.

“While Katrina was very much an equal opportunity disaster that hit both rich neighborhoods and poor, rich neighborhoods have largely rebounded, but poor neighborhoods still need help,” said Lauren Anderson, CEO of the Neighborhood Housing Services of New Orleans, a group that offers residents financial advice and helps build and renovate homes. “The formula that was used [to allocate funds] was based not just on the extent of damage to the house, but also on pre-Katrina property values, which skewed resources in favor of wealthier homes and neighborhoods.” This meant that poorer neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward, which was hit the worst by the storm, received less money than the damage warranted.

Christina Stephens, a spokesperson for Road Home, admits the program hasn’t been perfect. In hindsight she says, “We probably would have designed a slightly simpler program to speed things up faster.” However, she insists that Road Home and others have worked hard to assist the poorer communities. In particular, she points to a $1 billion government grant specifically intended to help improve low-to moderate-income families.

“Road Home grants are calculated a lot of times based on the pre-storm value of homes,” Stephens says, echoing Anderson’s point. “So we want to make sure we are helping lower income families get the funds they need.”

Residents in New Orleans are able to receive a maximum of $150,000 through the Road Home Foundation to rebuild their homes as well as an extra $130,000 through a national flood insurance program and a hazard mitigation program intended to fortify homes against future environmental threats. However, Stephens says that the average applicant ends up receiving less than half of that maximum amount.

But according to Stephens and several other nonprofits we spoke with, two of the biggest factors that have caused many families to still be homeless – besides funding - are contractor fraud and getting the proper legal documents in order.

In the first year after Katrina, the number of complaints about contractor cons in New Orleans jumped up by more than 8% as scammers quickly realized there was a big market for home repairs following the storm.

Families spent their grant money, often dipping into their savings to renovate their homes only to find out that jobs had been done incorrectly. One of the most common menaces to Louisana homeowners has been Chinese drywall. As luck would have it, this cheap substitute to regular drywall arrived en masse in the U.S. shortly after Katrina hit. As a result, deceitful contractors and desperate homeowners often padded their houses with it. Unfortunately, this drywall wears away easily, emits a terrible odor and can lead to health problems.

Kenneth and Barbara Wiltz, two New Orleans residents in their mid-60s, experienced this issue first-hand. The couple returned to the city in 2006, bought a damaged home that was more affordable, and hired a contractor to fix it up. After the job was done, the Wiltzs found the contractor had used the wrong drywall, and had no choice but to do what many others have done: tear it all down. They reached out to Zach Rosenburg at St. Bernard’s Project for help.

“When we got to them, they were living in a house that only had insulation,” Rosenburg says. “It was heartbreaking seeing these two folks eating dinner together at a card table with just insulation on the walls.” Fortunately, Rosenburg’s organization was able to make the home right again, but many others are still left with half-finished homes.

As for the other big obstacle families have faced – getting their legal papers in order – this has proved to be the major setback for the King family. While they owned the mobile home that had been destroyed in the storm, they did not own the land it sat on. Instead, the land was given to them unofficially by Charles King’s uncle, who since passed away. That meant they didn’t have the legal documents to show proof of ownership to organizations like Road Home.

“Due to them being family, we didn’t have anything in writing. In those days and times, it was just considered family land,” Rosalind says. “And Road Home had standards. If the property that the home was on was not owned by the person, well there was only so much money you could get.”

This has turned out to be a relatively unique challenge to New Orleans, which historically has many residents who reside on property that had been informally passed down over the years from one family member to the next.

As Stephens, the Road Home spokesperson, explains, without the documents, “Legally, the succession had never been done.” So in order to process the claim, the organization would have to painstakingly contact every member of the family with a tie to the land in order to get them to sign off on any repairs that would be made. In some cases, this drastically extended the time it took to get people into a permanent livable home.

The Cost of Moving Back Home

An odd effect of the post-Katrina recovery is that New Orleans has become less affordable. Many of the city’s public housing developments were damaged in the storm and subsequently torn down and replaced by mixed-income facilities. Similarly, the median price of homes increased significantly from $137,400 in 2004 to more than $160,000 last year, according to the National Association of Realtors.

According to the Brookings Institute, more than half of the poor population that once lived in the city proper has now been forced to move out to the suburbs because New Orleans has become too pricey. In fact, Brookings found that nearly 60% of all renters in the city now use up at least 35% of their income on housing costs compared to 43% who did so the year before the storm.

One of the key financial considerations for prospective homeowners in the city going forward is the issue of insurance rates. As James Donelon, Louisiana’s Insurance Commissioner, explained to MainStreet, home insurance rates increased by 12.5% statewide the year after the storm and by an astounding 48% in New Orleans. Much of this was due to the fact that two big insurance companies, AllState and State Farm, significantly decreased the number of policies they approved and AAA left the state all together, forcing families to pay a higher premium to the handful of companies that were willing to provide the necessary coverage.

Home insurance rates have continued to inch up in the years since, increasing by about 3%-5% statewide each year, but Donelon sees these more modest increases as a sign that rates have mostly stabilized now. And he attributes this mainly to the fact that 12 new insurance companies have started doing business in the state, and specifically along the coastal areas, since Katrina. Still, Louisiana is always near the top of the list of most expensive states for insuring homes, with an average annual premium of more than $1,000.

That doesn’t even begin to take into account the cost of flood insurance, which is what most residences in the New Orleans area need most. Average premiums are about $570 a year though for more expensive homes near coastal areas, it can be much more.

“Only 40% of victims of Rita and Katrina had flood insurance in place and though there’s been a slight increase since then, it’s still only about 30% of properties that have it now,” Donelon said, before adding, “Even though I tell the public constantly that that’s the best insurance in the state for property owners because its subsidized by the federal government.”

The King family was one of the many that did not have any insurance on their home before the storm. “We never thought Katrina would take everything,” Rosalind reasoned, but admitted that the next time around, they will buy the proper insurance, no matter the extra cost.

After years of wrangling with Road Home for funds, they successfully received a grant for enough to buy themselves a new one-story home in June. “We said, we’ve just got to buy a home before this money gets away from us, so we found a place quickly and paid cash for it,” Charles says.

The home they bought sits just five minutes from the trailer they live in now, but when they bought it, it was completely gutted, without any walls. So for now, the family is applying for help from St. Bernard’s Project to fix it up. With any luck, the family hopes they’ll be able to move in to the home in the next month or two, but until then, they will continue to live their day-to-day lives in the shadow of what will hopefully become their permanent home.

For all that they’ve gone through, Mrs. King continues to be optimistic about the future. Her attitude may come the closest to summing up the spirit and mindset of New Orleans as a whole.

“We’ve lost a lot,” King says, “but a new beginning is better than none at all.”

By Seth Fiegerman, MainStreet.com

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