Thursday, December 13, 2007

HUD to Nagin: Demolition of Lafitte critical

The Housing Authority of New Orleans will lose out on $137 million in construction funding and 900 disaster housing vouchers if the City Council does not approve demolition plans for Lafitte, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said Thursday.

On Monday, a historic conservation committee deadlocked on demolishing Lafitte, tying 3-3. HANO said it will appeal to the City Council, which is likely to vote on the matter at its regular meeting Thursday. The committee approved demolition plans for B.W. Cooper and C.J. Peete.

In a letter to Mayor Ray Nagin, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson said that HANO has already secured Gulf Opportunity Zone low-income housing tax credits and other federal grants to redevelop Lafitte into a "mixed income" neighborhood. A total of $137 million would be lost if the council doesn't approve Lafitte's demolition, Jackson said.

Jackson also said that former Lafitte residents could lose their disaster housing vouchers, which pay market-rate rents while they await the rebuilding of the complex. Those vouchers, provided by HUD, are directly linked to the plan to demolish and rebuild housing on the site, the letter said.

Lafitte, which housed 865 families before Hurricane Katrina, has been shuttered and vacant since the storm. HANO says that nonprofit developers will build 1,500 units of housing, including 296 public housing units and 624 units for low-income renters.

"Any action that would that would prevent the demolition of Lafitte will deny housing assistance to the displaced tenants, which, absent using their own funds, would likely make it very difficult for them to afford to pay their own rent," Jackson wrote.

HANO had planned to reopen at least 94 apartments at Lafitte, at a cost of $37,000 per unit, in order to allow families to live there while the complex is dismantled in phases, Jackson said.

"If these remaining units are not demolished and no redevelopment occurs at Lafitte, these 94 untis will not be refurbished, and HANO will have to locate returning public housing tenants elsewhere in the city," Jackson wrote.

Jackson said that HANO's master plan for redeveloping its properties began in 2002.

FEMA trailers to be tested for formaldehyde

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will begin testing Dec. 21 for formaldehyde in a sampling of trailers FEMA provided for victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, FEMA and the CDC announced today.

The testing is scheduled to take 35 days, when results will be shared with residents. A final report will be made public in mid-May, the agencies said.

Dr. Henry Falk, director of CDC's Coordinating Center for Environmental Health and Injury Prevention, said 500 trailers will be tested. He said that number was chosen because it allows a representative sample of 11 types of trailers by different manufacturers. Scientists, accompanied by FEMA officials, will go to trailers in Louisiana and Mississippi proportional to the number of occupied trailers in each state.

There are about 46,000 families in FEMA travel trailers and mobile homes across the Gulf Coast.

Jim Stark, director of FEMA's Transitional Recovery Office in New Orleans, said FEMA has received 6,700 calls to its hotline from families concerned about formaldehyde levels since reports of poisonous levels came out 18 months ago. He said 3,700 of those families have already asked to move out because of those concerns.

Falk said there's no clear standard for dangerous levels of formaldehyde, just general guidelines. FEMA and CDC will use the results of the tests to generally advise families, but won't use any findings to forceably evict anyone, Stark said.

Formaldehyde exposure can affect eye, nose and throat membranes and cause irritation, cough and respiratory problems, Falk said. The effects can vary widely, though, Falk said, depending on the age of residents, their pre-existing health risks and how long they generally spend in the trailers.