March 09, 2006
Coco McCabe is a writer in the communications department at Oxfam America.
Disasters are discriminatory. Recoveries shouldn’t be. But the one on the Gulf Coast is headed that way unless something quickly changes with how billions of federal dollars are being allocated to address the housing crisis caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The storms hit everyone hard, but for people living in flimsy trailers or dilapidated houses close to the ground, the double disaster did more than trash their homes. It washed out the wobbly footings of their futures.
Poor and working class people don’t have the resources to recover from disasters on their own. When a storm rips the roof off a trailer and swamps the inside with sewage spilled from a nearby treatment system—as it did to the one owned by Rickey Montagne, who is disabled and out of work—it’s hard to fathom how he will ever recover his sliver of security.
“It wasn’t a new trailer, but I paid for it,” said Montagne, a Louisiana father of two young children. “It wasn’t much for a lot of people but it was our home.”
There’s a grim truth in the name of this place: Gulf Coast. It’s the chasm between comfort and hardship, and around Dulac, Louisiana, where nearly 31 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, the gulf is wide and deep. At Betty Billiot’s small house, perched barely above the bayou waters, the family’s belongings moldered in heaps around the perimeter for days after Rita sloshed through, soaking and smashing everything. Up and down her street, the scene was the same: mud and wreckage.
For Billiot, who lives on social security and is caring for a husband suffering with Alzheimer’s, this wasn’t the first trashing her low-lying house had taken. Nor would it likely be the last—unless she could somehow lift the place above the flood waters like those of her neighbors down the road. “Catch a Little Heaven,” reads the sign at the entry to Southern Comfort, the gated community near Billiot’s house. Inside, new homes elevated high above the bayou on sturdy pilings appeared almost unscathed by the storms.
What people want now in this recovery, more than anything else, is a safe and secure place to call home—their own “Little Heaven.” But half a year after Katrina hit, an estimated 750,000 households remain displaced.
The Gulf Coast stands a slim chance of a solid recovery if it can’t offer decent housing for the residents—the fishermen, the farmers, the laborers, the hospitality workers—that fuel its economy. Government-issue trailers planted side by side in some remote parking lot won’t do for long, especially with another dangerous hurricane season approaching. For housing to be decent, it must be permanent, affordable, and part of a community where people can get to schools and jobs, parks and grocery stores.
But the way disaster recovery funds are being divvied up, it looks like plenty of people—folks on whom Louisiana and Mississippi depend—are going to be left out in the cold. At stake right now are $11 billion—and possibly $ 4 billion more—in federal grants. Traditionally used to help low- and moderate-income people, the two states are now planning to direct most of that money to help people whose homes are outside federally designated flood plains and never expected water damage.
But there’s a caveat: In Mississippi, if you didn’t have insurance on your house—perhaps because you couldn’t afford it—you won’t get a piece of that pie. In Louisiana, homeowners without insurance will get less in grant assistance than folks who had insurance prior to the storms. And for renters, who make up more than half of the residents in some hard-hit communities, the grant money will offer no help at all. The state plans exclude rental properties and make no provisions for rebuilding the rental units that were lost.
For the poorest residents who could not afford to buy insurance or own a home, state plans are a second blow—and almost as bad as the hits from Katrina and Rita.
If Mississippi and Louisiana are serious about seeing their regional economies recover, they need to make sure there is a range of affordable housing for their workers. Folks making the minimum wage or scraping by with seasonal work must have places to live that their salaries can support.
Where’s the first place to start? States should expand the eligibility criteria for the more than $11 billion in grants by dumping the insurance requirements for poorer homeowners. The states should also work harder to promote the use of millions of dollars in low-income housing tax credits. Developers can take advantage of those tax credits to build affordable rental housing.
There are steps to take at the federal level, too—such as redirecting Bush’s recent request for $9.4 billion more for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This agency already got the largest portion of federal funds to help people—and failed miserably in its response, especially when it came to assisting poor and working class people. Instead of frittering away more on FEMA, put that money to use in an immediately constructive way: Spend it on solving the Gulf Coast housing crisis with an agency that’s in the housing business.
For example, plow $2 billion into the HOME program run by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This program provides grants to state and local governments to use on a broad range of affordable housing activities, including rehabilitating homes for rent. Spend another $3.5 billion on HUD’s disaster voucher program, allowing folks trapped in FEMA’s ineffective transitional housing program a way out of that morass.
“No one has ever re-planned a city with poor people in it,” said Charles Elsesser, a Florida-based expert on long-term affordable housing recovery. “Suddenly, poor people disappear in the new vision.”
This time, we can’t afford to let that happen. We were ashamed when we saw how profound the poverty was in pockets along the Gulf Coast. We should be more ashamed to turn our backs on it now.