Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Many early applicants waiting on Road Home

From the Times-Picayune:

A full fifth of eligible applicants who applied in 2006 for Road Home grants, including about a dozen early applicants who participated in a pilot program, have not received any of the homeowner grant money, according to data obtained Tuesday.

For months, advocates and policymakers at the Louisiana Recovery Authority have been asking Road Home officials to disclose how many of the 70,000 homeowners still awaiting grants were applicants from the first months of the program. The state asked for the data at the Jan. 4 LRA housing task force committee meeting, but the information wasn't released then. Committee member Melanie Ehrlich finally received a report last week and passed the numbers along to The Times-Picayune.

The report showed that 13,452 of the 67,255 eligible homeowners who applied in 2006 still hadn't reached a grant closing by last week, including some who were in the pilot program launched in July 2006.

State officials said about 3,000 of those cases are not the fault of the Road Home, but are cases in which the homeowner has yet to return a form indicating whether they want to rebuild or sell their property to the state. About 10,000 of the 2006 cases are in the final verification stages and moving toward closing, state officials said.

The data shows the program has made more progress with older cases. Eighty percent of the eligible 2006 applicants have gotten at least some of their grant money, compared with 70 percent of those who applied in the first three months of 2007.

In all, 19,200 of the 86,195 eligible homeowners who applied at least 10 months ago haven't had a closing yet.

Ehrlich, an applicant advocate at the Citizens Road Home Action Team, said that number was unacceptable and showed a failure of the program to keep up with older cases.

Homeowners fed up

John and Judy Drury say there's no good explanation for the fact that they've been waiting since Oct. 10, 2006.

They were told they would get the maximum $150,000 grant to fix their more than 3,000-square-foot home in Eden Isles. But then the program used three different home sizes in the calculations, and their application was held up for months without an explanation.

This is the most frustrating thing I've ever done," said John Drury, 64, who spent eight years in the Navy Reserves. "The service was a breeze compared to this. They try to put enough roadblocks up so you get disgusted and you quit."

On Friday, Drury was told he would get nothing because his outdoor porches and attached carport had to be counted in the total square footage of the home, which reduced to 45 percent the damage caused by three feet of floodwater. If the Road Home counted only the finished living space, the damage would have been 55 percent, triggering a different calculation method that would have netted the Drurys a $150,000 grant.

Pledge to help

"We know there are thousands of homeowners that are tired and frustrated," said new LRA Executive Director Paul Rainwater. "We know they need answers. We have an obligation to remove barriers and clear choke points wherever they exist to ensure that all homeowners -- 100 percent of our homeowners -- move quickly through the process and that they are treated fairly and with respect."

Suzie Elkins, director of the state Office of Community Development, the agency overseeing the Road Home, said many of the old files are not ones for which the calculations are in question, but ones requiring the applicants to take some kind of action to move the process forward.

"We're working hard, really hard," Elkins said. "Our goal is to move the homeowner as fast as we can through the system. But most of these cases are dependent on the homeowners."

To try to help homeowners who are stuck, the Road Home has contracted with ACORN Housing and Southeast Louisiana Legal Services to work directly with applicants. For those who believe they have done all they can and the Road Home is to blame for the repeated delays, the program recently introduced a new focus on case management, vowing to send letters to anyone who has been in the system more than 90 days.

Complications slow process

There are a number of issues that can hold up cases, said Mike Spletto, senior housing manager for the Office of Community Development. Thousands of applicants who want to sell their homes to the state have a clouded title or owe more on their mortgage than the total buyout grant would pay, leaving them in what's called an upside-down mortgage. Until a deal is worked out with the mortgage company, those owners can't collect a grant.

Spletto also said Road Home workers are having a hard time dealing with condominium associations that must disclose insurance settlements for individual condo owners to collect grants. Also, he said hundreds of owners of manufactured homes on leased land have been unable to document that they were living at a particular site at the time of the