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Seeking a Bridge to Somewhere

Officials are trying to get hundreds of thousands of Katrina evacuees out of hotels into more stable housing. But the obstacles are many.

October 14, 2005|Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — With almost 600,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees living in hotels and motels across the country, government officials are launching a massive effort to transfer them into more stable housing.

The drive, if successful, will significantly reduce what has become an $11-million-a-day tab, paid by U.S. taxpayers.

But officials are encountering an array of obstacles and inefficiencies that have threatened their ability to move evacuees into long-term temporary housing.

Among the pressing issues: a shortage of housing that evacuees can afford, a widely scattered population that is difficult to track, local opposition to establishing trailer-park communities and a mismatch between the needs of the evacuees and the location and condition of potential housing.

For example, one plan would place evacuees in properties owned by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD has identified more than 6,300 units -- mostly acquired through foreclosure -- in the 11 states most affected by the hurricanes, but only 1,800 are habitable, spokesman Brian Sullivan said. The rest require as much as $15,000 worth of repairs each.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 16, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Hurricane evacuee -- Credits were transposed on two photographs accompanying an article in Friday's Section A about officials' attempts to find stable housing for Hurricane Katrina evacuees. Times photographer Spencer Weiner took the larger photo, showing a mobile home park; Jae C. Hong of Associated Press photographed the evacuee in her motel room.

Just after Katrina hit, the Federal Emergency Management Agency purchased tens of thousands of recreational vehicles and trailers for use by evacuees. But its plans for "cities" with hundreds of RVs have run into logistical difficulties and political resistance, with the areas widely derided as "FEMA-villes."

The housing crisis has become so severe that other federal agencies, such as Veterans Affairs and the Department of Agriculture, have been asked to identify possible housing in the buildings they control.

A further complication is the unwillingness of some evacuees to move into certain cities or neighborhoods for reasons that include a lack of public transportation or fear of an inhospitable reception. In Texas alone, there are as many as 7,000 evacuated families with what are described as special needs.

And even with the $2,385 that each family can get from FEMA to cover three months of rent, the ongoing costs of rent and utilities can be a daunting hurdle for evacuees who no longer have jobs, especially if they now are in areas with higher housing prices.

"If you don't have the resources, getting housing relocation assistance has proven to be problematic," said Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

To bolster efforts to move evacuees into more permanent housing arrangements, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, the federal official overseeing the reconstruction effort in the Gulf Coast, has developed what he called a unified regional approach that includes strike teams representing various federal agencies that will try to help evacuees move out of hotels and motels and into less transient arrangements.

"We have a lot of people out there who need to be put someplace other than a shelter or a hotel," Allen said this week, describing the current lodging setup as "a bridge to nowhere."

In his speech to the nation Sept. 15, President Bush said he wanted the hundreds of shelters housing Katrina evacuees to be empty in a month. Seeking to meet that deadline, officials have been quickly moving the evacuees out of the shelters -- and into hotels and motels. That, in turn, has created the new sense of urgency to find the evacuees more permanent homes.

Officials believe they will come close to achieving Bush's goal of emptying the shelters of Katrina evacuees by Saturday. As of Thursday, two days before the deadline, about 12,000 people were still in shelters -- but many of those were displaced by Hurricane Rita, which followed Katrina by a month.

In all, the two storms displaced 1.5 million Gulf Coast residents. Though many ended up with friends and relatives, at one point 273,000 people were in shelters. The hurricanes destroyed up to 250,000 housing units.

Even though officials have reduced the shelter population by almost 95% from its peak, the huge number of evacuees in motels and hotels is causing some experts to criticize the government's approach.

"The response to the housing crisis has been incoherent and fiscally wasteful," said Bruce Katz, director of the metropolitan policy program at the Brookings Institution, a centrist public policy center in Washington.

"Many of us are somewhat bewildered by this, because we know how to relocate people fairly rapidly to decent housing," said Katz, who served as chief of staff at the Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Clinton administration.

The congregation of evacuees at motels and hotels and the scramble to get them out stem from earlier, faltering attempts by FEMA to cope with the huge displacement of Gulf Coast residents.

Two days after Katrina made landfall, HUD said it would issue emergency vouchers to help evacuees find temporary housing. But the Bush White House, which has long opposed housing vouchers on philosophical grounds, opposed the idea.

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