Put an end to FEMA trailers by moving people quickly into permanent housing

She says it far better than I can. We shot this interview with a woman whose home suffered major damage from Hurricane Rita. She describes the type of problems thousands of low income Texas families have encountered trying to get their homes repaired working with FEMA. [BTW – her house is still not repaired today, more than three years after the hurricane].

In yesterday’s blog entry I outlined a five-point plan for Texas to use in rehabilitating and reconstructing housing that was damaged or destroyed in Hurricanes Ike and Dolly. One of the main elements of the plan is a program to rebuild the single-family homes of low income homeowners that were destroyed in the hurricanes.

I recommended that the program designed and operated by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs that was set up to rebuild the homes destroyed by Hurricane Rita be continued with some modifications and extended to serve Hurricane Dolly and Ike survivors. I had previously posted a blog entry outlining the reasons why I believed this program should be continued, despite recent criticisms of its slow start.

One of the modifications to this existing housing repair and reconstruction program that I recommend is the establishment of a pilot program to develop better designs and construction techniques for the rapid replacement of single-family homes for low income families in the wake of natural disasters. The purpose of today’s blog entry is to outline the need for that pilot program.

The most important lesson we have learned from long-term housing recovery in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita is that the housing needs of low-income disaster victims are profoundly different from those of higher income families. Disaster recovery programs are failing to provide long-term housing stability to low-income families because of the programmatic focus on temporary as opposed to permanent housing.

Over the past several months I have discussed at length problems that I see with the way FEMA attempts to assist low income households through temporary housing. FEMAs temporary housing programs do not work well for this population. FEMA is slow to provide temporary housing, the housing which it does provide has often been inadequate (as was the experience with the formaldehyde-laced travel trailers) and the cost to the government of providing temporary housing is ridiculously expensive.

What’s more, the temporary housing often becomes a dead end for lower income households because of the failure to provide programs to produce permanent housing that is affordable.

The FEMA model for household recovery is designed for households which have reasonable pre-hurricane incomes and can expect to be reimbursed for a portion of the cost of rebuilding their homes from their private insurance. This means that FEMA expects to provide temporary housing for a very short duration of time while the area recovers, the household goes back to work, applies for and receives reimbursement from homeowners insurance for housing damages and secures the necessary repairs to get back into their home. While not perfect, the FEMA model does work fairly well for households with at least a moderate income.

But Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have made it all too apparent that this model does not work for lower income households. Lower income renter households must be temporarily housed for an extended period of time while government and the private sector work out financing for the reconstruction of affordable rental housing. The federal government has modified the pre-Katrina and Rita FEMA model to provide a housing rent voucher for a period of 18 months to assist lower income renter households during this rebuilding period. This was a step in the right direction. This approach breaks down however when delays are experienced (as they frequently are) in the construction of subsidized rental housing or when state and local decisions are either slow or act to prohibit the reconstruction of that housing. I’ll discuss this problem in more detail in a future blog entry.

Today we will focus upon the plight of the low income homeowner.

FEMA attempts to assist low income homeowners through its temporary housing program which is designed to meet the needs of higher income homeowners for short-term temporary housing. This might work if other resources were available to the homeowner to allow them to quickly and effectively handle the complexity and financial burden of reconstructing and repairing their homes. But generally that is not the case.

The resources to fund the reconstruction or rehabilitation of permanent housing are not directly connected to FEMA programs. Generally speaking, these programs are funded through special congressional disaster appropriations of Community Development Block Grant funds made available to state governments. While Florida, which frequently must contend with the challenge of repairing and rebuilding homes destroyed by disasters, has established programs to rapidly provide effective housing rehabilitation and reconstruction assistance to lower income families, most states do not have established programs. Thus, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, were forced to design housing assistance programs in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In each case, this resulted in low income hurricane survivors having to spend extended periods of time in temporary housing as these programs were established.

An important lesson to be learned is that states should not wait until a disaster strikes before establishing a program to assist low income disaster victims to rebuild their homes.

It is clearly in the interest of both FEMA and state governments to cooperate to find a solution to housing low income owner occupants more quickly. If state housing repair and reconstruction programs are not deployed rapidly, low income hurricane survivors must rely on FEMA temporary housing assistance for a longer period of time and at greater cost to the federal government. FEMA’s interest in controlling the cost of temporary housing by moving low income families back into permanent housing quickly should justify better coordination and greater flexibility in the use of FEMA resources to provide permanent housing along with additional federal appropriations for the rapid and efficient deployment of state operated permanent housing programs.

Consider, for example, the cost to the government to provide a FEMA trailer for temporarily housing a hurricane survivor. Not counting the considerable logistical costs of identifying places to put the trailers, securing reviews, permits and local permission, connecting utilities, maintaining the trailers etc. the cost to FEMA of simply purchasing the trailer and its furnishings can run upwards of $50,000.

Now consider the plight of many low income hurricane survivors who own their homes. It was not uncommon, in the wake of Hurricane Rita, for such households to be living on minimum Social Security income of less than $700 a month while living in a house that had been passed down to them through the generations. Often the house had pre-existing conditions that meant it would need substantial and expensive repairs to bring it into compliance with current building codes. In a great majority of the cases the amount of money that FEMA spent temporarily housing a low income owner occupant far exceeded the value of the family’s home even before it suffered damage in the hurricane.

Few would dispute the government’s obligation to provide temporary housing assistance to a family in the wake of a natural disaster and, likewise, few would dispute the inefficiency of spending large amounts of public funds to house a family temporarily in decent housing who would soon be forced to return to a massively substandard house. Doesn’t it make more sense to devise a program to reduce the length of time a low income family must be housed in expensive temporary housing and to devote the savings to the improvement and affordability of their permanent housing?

This is the idea behind the pilot program that I have suggested.

The pilot program seeks to address the housing needs of low income households facing two different sets of circumstances. The first group are those families whose homes, while suffering minor to moderate damage, can be repaired. Many of these families simply need roof repairs and minor structural repairs to be able to reoccupy their homes. The experience in recent hurricanes however has demonstrated that these repairs do not happen quickly. Low income households often lack any available cash to contract for emergency repairs. As we observed their interaction with FEMA, which in theory could provide small amounts of cash to undertake such repairs, we learned many households were not able to access FEMA funds for these purposes.

The complicating factors included FEMA’s policy of routinely denying assistance to households because the “pre-existing condition” of the house rendered it substandard prior to the disaster. Most recently and infamously this policy was applied wholesale to the homes of low income homeowners in the Texas Rio Grande Valley whose homes suffered major damage from Hurricane Dolly. This policy is highly fiscally imprudent given the fact that FEMA must pay for temporarily housing people regardless of pre-disaster housing problems.

A second barrier to low income households ability to use small FEMA grants to obtain emergency repairs to their homes can be found in FEMA’s inability to explain, in a manner that people can understand, how to access and utilize FEMA’s emergency repair funds. It often taxes the ability of legal aid attorneys and social service professionals to deal with and understand the FEMA bureaucracy. FEMA simply has not found a way to effectively communicate with low income clients.

A third barrier to the use of FEMA emergency repair grants is the inability of low income households to successfully identify contractors, secure bids, negotiate contracts and oversee the repair work. On top of that is the difficulty of knowing exactly how to repair the house. In states like Texas, where home remodeling contractors are not licensed or regulated, low income consumers are often left to the mercy of the predatory practices of the contractors. The shortage of qualified contractors in the wake of the disaster in which their services are in great demand is a greatly exacerbating factor.

A story (at the top of this post) that will stick with me for a long time is the one I was told by an 80-year-old woman standing in the kitchen of her wrecked house in Port Arthur, Texas. She had made countless trips to the FEMA Disaster Assistance Center to talk to a FEMA official. He told her that FEMA would give her several thousand dollars to make emergency repairs provided she was able to bring him three bids for the repairs. The FEMA official offered her no help in determining the type of repairs that her home needed. She had enormous problems finding three contractors to bid on the job. After many trips back and forth to see the FEMA official he authorized her to proceed without three bids. She got a roofing contractor to put a new roof on her house. Yet the house had been blown off its foundation by the hurricane. She then spent her meager savings paying an unlicensed and unscrupulous contractor to do ineffective, cosmetic repairs to the foundation. The roofing contractor she hired and paid with funds made available by FEMA failed to install the roof in accordance with local codes. FEMA determined that she had exhausted the funds it had available to assist her for emergency repairs. Her home remained completely uninhabitable and condemned by the city.

There must be a better way.

There is a need for a way to use the excess funds that can be saved by minimizing the cost of FEMA for temporary housing as well is to capture the emergency repair funds which FEMA has available but that are not effectively being utilized. These funds can go a long way to help get low income people back into homes that only require modest amounts of repair.

Our recommendation is a program we call “Windows, Doors and Roofs”. We propose FEMA make funds available under the FEMA Individuals and Families Assistance Program to states and local governments to contract for and oversee repairs to the homes of low income families. The goal is to prevent future damage from water coming through the roofs and windows from post-disaster rains. The State of Texas and the City of Houston both sought, and were denied, the cooperation of FEMA to undertake such a program in the wake of Hurricane Ike.

Let’s turn to a solution to the problems faced by low income families who require complete reconstruction of their home.

The Stafford Act, the controlling statute for the administration of FEMA’s Individuals and Family Assistance Program, caps the maximum benefit FEMA is allowed to expend to provide temporary housing and emergency repairs to a household at $28,800. FEMA incurs additional costs in the form of the cost of acquisition of trailers for temporary housing.

As discussed earlier, the dysfunctionality of the current program is that it expends huge amounts of money for temporarily housing low income families who, at the end of the period of temporary housing assistance are simply cut off and told to fend for themselves in the wake of the failure to provide replacement housing. The solution is clearly to minimize the costs of temporary housing and to use those funds instead to rebuild homes.

With this goal in mind a number of organizations, including the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, are cooperating to develop a small pilot program to develop architectural models and construction techniques to produce a house that can be built quickly enough to take the place of the FEMA trailer as temporary housing and which can serve to provide high-quality permanent replacement housing to low income homeowners. The small pilot program of four houses is intended to be the precursor of the larger pilot program that I called for in yesterday’s blog.

Later this week I will discuss in more detail the initial pilot program which we call the Texas Grow Home project.