Inside trailer No. 27 here at the A. L. Davis Playground, where the government set up a camp last year for displaced residents of 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 aluminum doors. Thousands of other trailer residents across Louisiana were informed by FEMA last week that they too would 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.
In some core middle- and lower-income areas, blighted dwellings stretch for blocks on end, and the city has been slow to come up with ideas for what to do with those that have been abandoned. Last week, the city housing authority approved the demolition of 4,000 public housing units at five projects damaged by the storm. In their place, the authority plans to build mixed-income projects, large parts of which will not be affordable to previous residents.
Although repairs are being made and more housing is available now than a year ago, demand is still outpacing supply.
Ms. Bernard, a veteran worker for the local public transportation agency who has to move by Monday, 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. In New Orleans, decent affordable housing remains a casualty of the storm.
“A lot of the city is still boarded up,” said Ms. 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 lately in New Orleans is the highly visible number of homeless men and women living under bridges and in parks. 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 stronger last week with FEMA’s announcement on Wednesday 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 around the city.
The agency said its action was intended to hasten the move of residents to permanent housing from trailers. 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 that some residents had not spoken with a caseworker in weeks, even though they were scheduled to be evicted within days.
“The caseworker is very hard to get in touch with,” said Martin Blossom, a pizza cook who lives in a trailer and who is not sure where he will move in the next few days. “I haven’t talked with the caseworker for two weeks.”
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 Ms. 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.
“We done been through so much with FEMA till where it’s easy for the federal government to back out on their word,” Ms. Jones, a factory worker, said. “They did it before. Everybody’s looking at, ‘What if?’ ”
Time has already run out for some. Ms. Bernard, 40, and her two daughters got the final word on Friday that they were evicted, cast out of the only home they have had since the storm to whereabouts unknown. And they were not alone.
“I don’t know what’s going to become of us,” said Tiffany Farbe, who lives in a trailer park near the Mississippi River in the Uptown part of New Orleans with her son and mother. “They said get out. I’ve explained to them over and over again our situation. FEMA just makes you feel like dirt.”
The agency objects to that characterization, and says it is only trying to help.
“It’s 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, Mr. 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.”
Before the hurricane, housing advocates estimated there were about 6,300 homeless people in New Orleans and neighboring Jefferson Parish. Today, the count is 12,000 and growing. Experts said it was hard to ignore the link between the housing situation and homelessness.
“FEMA and the federal bureaucracy seem oblivious to the fact that virtually no new affordable rental housing has yet appeared in New Orleans to replace what was lost,” said Martha J. Kegel, executive director of Unity of Greater New Orleans, a group of 60 agencies that house and feed the homeless. “It will take a long time for enough replacement affordable housing to be built. To withdraw housing assistance to the neediest people is a shirking of federal responsibility for the design failure of the federal levees in New Orleans, which was the cause of most of the destruction of affordable housing here.”
In the past several months, a homeless encampment has sprung up on the steps of City Hall — partly because it is a safe open space and partly because it is a political statement. Tents and sleeping bags are aligned in rows. The crowd of hundreds is a mix of young and old, white and black.
Michael Reeves, 45, sleeps on the grass outside City Hall. He used to rent a one-bedroom in the Ninth Ward for $350 before the storm. “Ain’t nothing left but the ground,” he said. “We didn’t have nowhere to go so we came here.”
Not everyone in the park is a native of New Orleans. Some people came here after the storm to do construction work without realizing they would not be able to find a place to live. Some sleep on-site in unfinished buildings; others have taken up residence in abandoned buildings or in parks.
Ken Cimino, 48, sleeps outside of City Hall, too. He does odd jobs at the Superdome, mostly picking up trash after Saints football games. Mr. Cimino drove to New Orleans recently from New Haven, Conn.
“I came here for construction work, and found the situation wasn’t quite what I expected,” he said. “I thought I’d live out of my car for a few weeks until I found a place. Used up my savings. I just got caught off balance.”
Now, Mr. Cimino says he cannot afford to drive back to Connecticut. He is just one of many laborers who find themselves without options.
Ms. 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.”
Monday, December 3, 2007
Posted by rich board at 7:06 PM