NEW ORLEANS -- The federal government will extend housing assistance payments to victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita for an additional 18 months, officials announced yesterday, but residents will be required to pay a portion of their rent for part of that period.
More than 100,000 households in the Gulf Coast region are dependent on government housing aid they have been relying on since Katrina and Rita struck in the summer of 2005, according to figures from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.
The program was initially set to expire at the end of February, then was extended through Aug. 31 and now is to last until March 1, 2009. The continued aid will amount to an estimated $1 billion in federal funds.
Beginning in March 2008, residents living in government-subsidized apartments, mobile homes and travel trailers would be required to pay part of the rent, beginning at $50 a month and increasing by $50 each month. Residents unable to pay, such as disabled people and seniors, would be exempt.
"Many of the persons we are talking about don't have homes to go back to. They have vacant lots," said Alphonso Jackson, secretary of the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. "This is a very difficult and unique situation, and we're trying to do everything we can to stabilize the lives of people affected by Hurricane Katrina."
As part of the new program, at least 86,000 residents living in travel trailers and mobile homes - the majority of them in Louisiana - would be given the option to buy these dwellings at fair market value, FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison said. About 33,000 people remain in government-subsidized apartments, primarily in Texas.
The new policy calls for HUD to take over management of the disaster housing program that has been administered by FEMA since the storms.
News of the housing assistance extension was greeted with mixed reaction by housing advocates and residents displaced from their homes since Katrina and Rita.
"It's a temporary lifeline," said Judith A. Browne-Dianis, co-director of Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights and racial justice group. "While it's a good move to provide a safety net, where's the long-term plan?"
Browne-Dianis said the initiative failed to include many former residents of the New Orleans public housing complexes that are slated for demolition.
These residents have been receiving housing assistance vouchers from HUD, not FEMA, Browne-Dianis said. This aid is set to expire at the end of September, and many residents fear they will become homeless. Advancement Project is representing tenants in a class-action lawsuit seeking to restore them to their public housing units.
Beth Butler, regional community organizer for the housing advocacy group ACORN in New Orleans, said that while her organization supported the extension, it did not think residents should be required to contribute to the rent. Butler said the government should channel money into programs that help people rebuild their homes rather than essentially encouraging people to remain displaced.
"Why should the federal government force people to pay for a home somewhere else, when they haven't stepped up to help them pay for the homes [the government] destroyed in New Orleans yet?" Butler added. Her words reflect a view shared by many here that their properties were ravaged by flooding because of sub-standard levees built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Jackson, the housing secretary, said during the briefing that "it is only right" for the government to ask residents "to take some responsibility for input in their living conditions."
"We're not kicking people out. We're just trying to get people back to self-sufficiency," said Paulison, of FEMA.
Julie Andrews, a former resident of New Orleans' Desire public housing complex, said FEMA was paying $450 a month for a three-bedroom house for her family in Gaston, Ala. The mother of three said she welcomed the extension of housing assistance and was not opposed to contributing to the rent, but emphasizes that it would be a struggle.
"The problem is, people have so many other issues, being low-income," said Andrews, 45. "Most people are in such financial debt, it's unbearable."
A former insurance agent turned garbage collector, Andrews commutes for days at a time between Gaston and New Orleans, where she wants to re-establish her family.
"In the long term, I would like to see residents back in New Orleans, where they can reset a foundation, and get employment and help rebuild the city," Andrews said.
Ann M. Simmons writes for the Los Angeles Times.