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Homeowners Stay Put in New Orleans

Records show most are using government aid to rebuild their property rather than to relocate.

October 08, 2006|Jean Guccione and Doug Smith | Times Staff Writers

Most New Orleans-area property owners seeking government aid for hurricane damage are showing a strong preference for restoring their old neighborhoods rather than take the money to seek new horizons.

Although federal and state recovery programs offer aid to those who choose to relocate, few applicants have requested it, records show.

A Times analysis of data from the Small Business Administration, the federal agency primarily responsible for disaster reconstruction loans, found that of more than 150,000 homeowners and business owners approved for the loans, 2% were transferring the money to a new property.

Those who are moving aren't going far. New Orleans suburbs on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain are favorite destinations of the few loan applicants who are leaving the devastated neighborhoods in the area south of the lake. Only a handful have asked to use the money to buy homes outside the metropolitan area.

Though the 2% relocation figure may seem low considering the widespread property loss after Hurricane Katrina, it is higher than that of other disasters, said Herb Mitchell, the Small Business Administration's associate administrator for disaster assistance.

"In most disasters, there are very few relocations," he said. "Generally they stay in the community and rebuild."

Half of his agency's loans have been distributed. Mitchell said those who hadn't received the money could still request relocation.

Mitchell said he expected that more applicants would ask for relocation funds, and that some who had received only a portion of their loans for personal property might also ask to use the reconstruction funds elsewhere.

"My general impression [is] that people want to come back," Mitchell said. "The circumstances create the uncertainty."

The will of New Orleanians to return to their homes is also demonstrated by grant applications received by Louisiana's recovery program, the Road Home, which will distribute $10.4 billion in federal housing grants. The Road Home surveyed tens of thousands of applicants about where they intended to live, Road Home spokeswoman Carol Hector-Harris said.

About 12% of respondents planned to relocate -- the vast majority of them within the state -- whereas more than half intended to return to their properties, Hector-Harris said. The remaining third did not know or did not respond, illustrating the uncertainty that pervades the recovery.

Melanie and Richard Goodyear are among the small percentage of New Orleans area property owners who intend to relocate within the metro area with federal assistance.

The Goodyears had dreamed of moving to the New Orleans suburbs north of Lake Pontchartrain when they retired in 10 or 20 years. They are following a path that was well-worn even before the storm. Many of their friends live on the north shore, an area now packed with hurricane evacuees.

When Katrina damaged the Goodyears' home and scattered their friends and neighbors last year, the couple accelerated plans to leave St. Bernard Parish, one of the areas hit hardest by the storm. "It just pushed us to make a decision a little earlier," said Melanie Goodyear, 45.

She and Richard, 53, are building a home in the north-shore town of Madisonville. The Goodyears return to their damaged house every two weeks to cut the grass. But Melanie Goodyear cannot imagine ever returning to St. Bernard Parish to live.

"We are not going back," she said. "It's not the same. None of our neighbors came back. None of our friends are there.... There is no quality of life right now."

jean.guccione@latimes.com

doug.smith@latimes.com

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