SULFUR – Roishetta Ozane knows she and her six children will have to move soon, but she has no idea where they are going.
“The rent is ridiculously high,” said the 37-year-old community activist and single mother, who has lived in a FEMA-paid rental van since May, when her previous home was badly damaged by Hurricane Laura. “And then the apartment doesn’t fit into the rent.”
Almost a year and a half since Laura devastated the Lake Charles area, followed by Hurricane Delta six weeks later, there have been nearly 2,000 families in trailers and motorhomes supplied by FEMA. But the program was always meant to be temporary, and now the deadlines for moving out are imminent. The lack of affordable housing has made the challenge even greater.
The move-out date for most trailers is February 28, or 18 months after Laura was declared a federal disaster, the standard rule for FEMA’s direct housing program. A far smaller number of families with motorhomes have a few more months thanks to Delta.
The state has requested a six-month extension due to the lack of available rents and high rental costs and is waiting for a response, said Mike Steele, governor’s office spokesman for homeland security and emergency preparedness.
Even when granted, it can only delay the inevitable. The challenges families ultimately face will depend on whether or not the housing shortage in hurricane-hit Lake Charles can be resolved by the time they are forced to leave.
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It’s a multi-layer problem. Large parts of the public and Section 8 were badly damaged by the storms and have yet to be repaired. This exacerbated the existing shortage of affordable housing, partly due to the influx of temporary workers in construction, fueled by the expansion of industrial facilities in the area.
It was not until the end of September – more than a year after Laura – that the federal government’s long-term disaster aid, which also affects housing construction, was approved and still has to overcome bureaucratic hurdles before it can be distributed.
Even after that, state and local officials say the amount approved so far – $ 595 million for Laura, Delta and Hurricane Zeta that hit southeast Louisiana in October 2020 – is nowhere near enough to solve the problem. In addition to the hurricanes, southwest Louisiana was hit by a severe winter storm in February and floods in May – all during the pandemic.
All of this means that the struggles of the families still living in FEMA supporters are likely to continue. Some could only move into the caravans months or even more than a year after Laura. The last family moved in on September 15 as part of the post-Laura program, according to the state’s request for an extension.
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“Unfortunately, I think what you see in Louisiana is the same as what we see every time after a disaster, when you have a housing crisis before a disaster strikes, there are already people out there who are a financial shock away from it, Losing their own homes – defaulting on their rents – then disaster happens, “said Sarah Saadian, vice president of public policy for the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
“You immediately have less living space, landlords raise rents, people quit so they can raise rents for the next person, and FEMA programs that don’t adequately address the needs, especially of low-income tenants.”
‘Nowhere for Rent’
The main location that Post-Laura trailers have been set up is Little Lake Charles RV Park on the outskirts of town. It has served as a weekend getaway or as a place for road trippers to settle in for the night. A lake runs through the property and cabins are available for rent. Fishing lures are sold in the front office.
But since the hurricanes, FEMA has rented more than 200 rooms to house storm survivors. The trailers they live in aren’t the white boxes that were ubiquitous after Katrina. Many are the same types of RVs that families would take on the road.
Some of those who still live there said there was nowhere else to go.
Debra Rogers, 58, who sits next to her daughter next to her trailer, praised the help of her FEMA skilled worker but said the apartments she saw are out of their price range.
“Everything is expensive,” said Rogers, who previously cleaned houses for a living but has recently been unable to do so due to medical problems. âThe places I find cost maybe $ 800 to $ 1,000 a month. The income I have doesn’t do justice to that. “
Those participating in the FEMA housing program must meet the conditions to stay there, including proof that they are looking for permanent place to stay by providing three such references per month, residents say.
“Don’t sit on our hands”
Daniel Teles, an economist at the Urban Institute, pointed out “many loopholes” when it comes to post-disaster programs.
“One of them is that FEMA help is basically supposed to be short-term, and there isn’t much help long-term,” he said.
Most long-term disaster relief comes from federal grants to community development blocs that must be approved by Congress. There are no guarantees as to both the amount and the timeframe – or even whether any money will be sent at all.
If it’s finally approved, it typically takes years to build new homes, Teles said.
Various proposals have been made to address some of these problems. Saadian pointed to a bill in the Senate, backed by a bipartisan group, including Bill Cassidy, that would provide for an ongoing funding process.
The NLIHC also endorses the use of the federal Disaster Housing Assistance Program, which was used after Katrina and other storms but has not been used recently, Saadian said. The program is longer and offers rental assistance, she said.
Another option for some of those who live in FEMA trailers is to buy them when they qualify, but buyers also need to find a long-term location for them.
Under FEMA rules, if an extension is granted beyond 18 months for trailers, residents would have to pay rent. However, the state has requested that this requirement be waived as well.
Low- and middle-income homeowners in Lake Charles are receiving financial aid to repair damage from storms that landed on land for over a year.
The state and Lake Charles have tried to do whatever they can while waiting for long-term federal aid to arrive. In November, Governor John Bel Edwards and Mayor Nic Hunter announced a $ 11.3 million housing program. It’s a comparatively small amount, but it’s meant in part to show that local officials “wouldn’t just sit on our hands and wait for the federal government,” Hunter said.
Ozane lives in Sulfur in a complex of larger RVs across the Calcasieu River from Lake Charles, near the industrial complexes that dominate the area with their sky-lit torches. FEMA rented units in the complex after the hurricane and Ozane was finally able to secure one in May.
A busy community activist, in addition to caring for her children, she has also spent much of her time in the past few months looking after the needs of other families through the Vessel Project, a charity she co-founded. She is also the community organizer for the environmental organization Healthy Gulf.
She wants to move out, but it is difficult to find a place for her family that is big enough.
“Do you think that honestly people just want to keep staying in those FEMA trailers?” She said. âI have six children. This is a three bedroom. My daughter is sleeping on the sofa. Why shouldn’t I purposely try to find something big enough for me and all of my children? “
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