FEMA evictions, few options loom for Katrina refugees

The Baltimore Sun

NEW ORLEANS -- Inside trailer No. 27 here at the A.L. Davis Playground, where the government set up a camp last year for residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina, Tracy Bernard's meager possessions are all packed up, even though she has nowhere to go.

About a month ago, workers for the Federal Emergency Management Agency swept through her trailer park, a bleak tableau of housing of the last resort, taping eviction notices on the flimsy doors. Thousands of other trailer residents across Louisiana were informed by FEMA last week that they would also be evicted in the next six months.

But few of them will be able to return to the city from which they were flooded out 27 months ago.

More than two years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is suffering from an acute shortage of housing that has nearly doubled the cost of rental units in the city, threatening the recovery of the region and the well-being of many residents who decided to return against the odds. Before the storm, more than half of the city's population rented housing. Yet official attention to help revive the shattered rental home and apartment market has been scant.

Although repairs are being made and more housing is available now than a year ago, demand is still outpacing supply.

Bernard, a veteran worker for the local public transportation agency who has to move by today, has been scouring the city for a place to rent. Properties in her price range, if they exist at all, routinely come without finished walls or stoves.

"A lot of the city is still boarded up," said Bernard, who rented a one-bedroom house in eastern New Orleans for $300 a month before Hurricane Katrina. "Where are we supposed to go?"

One of the more striking changes to appear in New Orleans is the highly visible number of homeless men and women. Social service groups say about 12,000 homeless people are living in the city, about double the number before the storm.

The sense of an impending housing crisis grew last week with FEMA's notice that it would close all the trailer camps it runs for victims of the 2005 hurricanes on varying schedules by the end of May. More than 900 families are living in FEMA trailer parks across the city.

The agency said its action was intended to hasten the move of residents to permanent housing. It said counselors would assist every resident in the transition. "We're with them every step of the way," Diane L.W. Perry, a FEMA spokeswoman, said Wednesday.

But in interviews at trailer parks last week, a reporter found some residents had not spoken with a caseworker in weeks, even though they were set to be evicted within days.

Others said the information they got from caseworkers was useless. Ramona Jones said her counselor gave her several listings, but some of the apartments were not ready for habitation by her eviction date -- or they were, in her words, "rat holes."

Landlords are asking $1,100 a month or more. Though Jones and others are eligible for financial assistance to help pay the high rents, many are reluctant, knowing that, like the trailers, the assistance could disappear, leaving them stranded with huge bills.

The agency says it is only trying to help. "[Moving is] the next step in the recovery," said Ronnie Simpson, a FEMA spokesman. "It's the individual's responsibility to go out and find what's suitable for them."

While the agency provides listings, Simpson said it did not necessarily endorse the properties or know much about them beyond their locations and the basics, such as the number of bedrooms.

"We know it's a tough decision, and that's not lost on us," he said, but "more and more housing becomes available every day. That's a fact. The sooner you begin the process, the better. You want to start early and pick what's right for your family." He added, "We're very sensitive to the fact that this isn't an easy move. But it's a necessary move."

Bernard said she might end up on a friend's mother's couch until she wears out her welcome. Then what?

"I know I'm going to find something," she said. "I have faith. I know God's going to work something out for us."

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