Sunday, March 30, 2008

Katrina Victims May Have to Repay Money

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Imagine that your home was reduced to mold and wood framing by Hurricane Katrina. Desperate for money to rebuild, you engage in a frustrating bureaucratic process, and after months of living in a government-provided trailer tainted with formaldehyde you finally win a federal grant.

Then a collector calls with the staggering news that you have to pay back thousands of dollars.

Thousands of Katrina victims may be in that situation.

A private contractor under investigation for the compensation it received to run the Road Home grant program for Katrina victims says that in the rush to deliver aid to homeowners in need some people got too much. Now it wants to hire a separate company to collect millions in grant overpayments.

The contractor, ICF International of Fairfax, Va., revealed the extent of the overpayments when it issued a March 11 request for bids from companies willing to handle ''approximately 1,000 to 5,000 cases that will necessitate collection effort.''

The bid invitation said: ''The average amount to be collected is estimated to be approximately $35,000, but in some cases may be as high as $100,000 to $150,000.''

The biggest grant amount allowed by the Road Home program is $150,000, so ICF believes it paid some recipients the maximum when they should not have received a penny. If ICF's highest estimate of 5,000 collection cases -- overpaid by an average of $35,000 -- proves to be true, that means applicants will have to pay back a total of $175 million.

One-third of qualified applicants for Road Home help had yet to receive any rebuilding check as of this past week. The program, which has come to symbolize the lurching Katrina recovery effort, is financed by $11 billion in federal funds.

ICF spokeswoman Gentry Brann said in an e-mail Friday that the overpayments are the inevitable result of the Road Home grant being recalculated to account for insurance money and government aid given to Katrina victims.

Brann said there was a sense of urgency in paying Road Home applicants, and ICF and the state knew applicants would have to return some money.

''The choice was either to process grants immediately or wait until the March 2008 deadline (for submitting Road Home applications) before disbursing any funds,'' Brann said in her e-mail.

Brann pointed out that 5,000 collections cases would represent a 4-percent error rate for the Road Home that is ''quite good for large federal programs.''

Frank Silvestri, co-chair of the Citizen's Road Home Action Team, a group that formed out of frustrations with ICF, sees it far differently.

''They want people to pay for their incompetence and their mistakes. What they need to be is aggressive about finding the underpayments,'' he said. ''People relied, to their detriment, on their (ICFs) expertise and rebuilt their houses and now they want to squeeze this money back out of them.''

The prospect of Road Home grant collections comes less than two weeks after the Louisiana inspector general and the legislative auditor said they were investigating why former Gov. Kathleen Blanco paid ICF an extra $156 million in her waning days in office to administer the program. With the increase, ICF stands to earn $912 million to run Road Home, a contract that also sweetened its initial public stock offering, and helped it buy out four other companies. It now reaches into government contracting sectors that include national defense and the environment.

Paul Rainwater, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the state body that asked for the Blanco-ICF investigations, acknowledged the collections could be painful for applicants, many of whom have used up their nest eggs to rebuild.

''The state must walk a fine line of treating homeowners who have been overpaid with fairness and compassion and ensuring that all federal funds are used for their intended purpose,'' said Rainwater, an appointee of new Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Upon receiving money from Road Home, grantees sign a batch of forms, including one that says they must refund any overpayments.

Melanie Ehrlich, co-chair of Citizen's Road Home Action Team, which has documented Road Home cases that appear littered with mistakes, said she had no confidence that ICF had correctly calculated overpayments. She charged that the company was more likely using collections as retribution against people who had appealed their award amounts in effort to get the aid they deserved.

''I think they are looking for ways to decrease awards and that's part of dissuading people,'' she said.

Brann said applicants are told an appeal could boost or diminish their award. She called Ehrlich's charge ''a totally unfounded assertion.''

Friday, March 28, 2008

Contaminated homes denied funds

It was one thing for Leatrice Roberts to find out that the government had sold her a townhome built on top of a waste dump. But it was mindboggling to learn, at age 74, that the Road Home can't buy her out because the land is contaminated.

"You talk to this one at Road Home, you talk to that one, nobody can tell you if she'll get her money," said Roberts' daughter Patricia, who now lives in Lakeview with her disabled mother and serves as her caretaker.

The state's $10.3 billion Road Home program pays homeowners up to $150,000 to rebuild their homes or to buy them out and transfer the land to a New Orleans redevelopment authority. Financing for the program comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which currently runs HANO -- the same agency that decades ago built the Press Park complex where the Robertses' storm-damaged townhome is located.

In the past two weeks, state officials informed homeowners such as Leatrice Roberts who lived atop the old Agriculture Street landfill before Hurricane Katrina hit that their Road Home applications had been placed on hold indefinitely because they live on a Superfund cleanup site. The EPA in 1994 added the 9th Ward enclave to its Superfund list, but said the area could be made safe with mitigation steps such as the replacement of topsoil.

On Thursday, state spokeswoman Christina Stephens said state agencies were working with local leaders and the EPA to come up with a policy for using HUD financing to buy the properties on the Superfund site.

HUD said its money can't be used to purchase contaminated land, but that it would work with the state to come up with a solution.

Federal subsidies

Homeowners in the neighborhood argue that they are entitled to compensation when it was HANO and the city of New Orleans, backed by federal subsidies, that built the homes on an old city dump, placed public housing tenants there and sold the homes to poor residents in a rent-to-own initiative. The neighborhood included a subdivision development called Gordon Plaza.

HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan said the federal housing agency sympathizes, but doesn't consider itself a party to the dispute.

"We appreciate the fact that it must be a maddening situation for these homeowners," he said.

Late Thursday, Stephens said the state decided to put applications from former residents of the landfill neighborhood back into the Road Home pipeline. Blending elements of two Road Home options, the property owners would have their grants calculated based on a regular rebuilding grant, but they also would be allowed to use the money to relocate. She said the state was still working out details of the policy, including who would assume ownership of the properties.

"We can't keep these people in a holding pattern forever," Stephens said.

The land's hidden legacy

The Robertses believe they were the second family to move into the HANO Press Park complex when it opened in 1970. When HANO showed the widowed Leatrice Roberts the property, she recalls that nobody told her it was on top of the old 95-acre landfill, a city dump from 1909 to 1958 that briefly reopened after Hurricane Betsy in 1965.

Everyone in the neighborhood knew Roberts' Montegut Street townhome by the heavy door with "Roberts" in a gold-painted iron design in the middle. After Hurricane Katrina flooded the townhome and destroyed the roof, someone took that door.

Leatrice Roberts now uses a wheelchair because of heart problems, diabetes, high blood pressure and a blood clot in her lungs. She's been waiting for Road Home to buy her out since her first appointment in November 2006, and using her Social Security checks to pay $1,500 in monthly rent.

The property deed of Roberts, for many years a subsidized renter at Press Park, shows she purchased her townhome from HANO on Nov. 4, 1991, three years before the EPA found dangerous levels of lead in the ground and declared the area a Superfund site. A few years after that, Roberts and her other daughter, Gail Wells, were diagnosed with cancer, they said. Roberts lost a kidney and Wells had ovarian cancer, but both say they are now cancer-free.

During the same year that the site was added to the Superfund list, school officials shut down Moton Elementary School, across Abundance Street from the row of townhomes, citing fears of the health effects of buried waste. But local and federal officials at the time turned aside residents' pleas for a buyout of their homes.

Post-storm contamination

After Hurricane Katrina, when the EPA tested the ground in New Orleans and gave the city a clean bill of health, there was one glaring exception: In the old Ag Street landfill area, yards had 50 times the normal level of the cancer-causing petroleum byproduct benzo(a)pyrene.

Nevertheless, FEMA trailers were supplied for properties in the area. Road Home officially initially said the program would provide rebuilding grants, but not buyouts, in the area. And HANO told homeowners they could move back into their homes, even though a judge had called the neighborhood unfit for people.

Roberts is among hundreds of former Press Park and Gordon Plaza residents waiting for HANO and the city to pay a class-action judgment, in a suit sparked by pre-Katrina contamination issues. It took 13 years to win the lawsuit in Civil District Court, where Judge Nadine Ramsey declared the neighborhood "unreasonably dangerous" and "uninhabitable." She ordered HANO, the city and their insurers to pay fair-market value, plus amounts ranging from $4,000 to $50,000 for emotional distress, depending on how long a resident lived at the site before contamination was found in 1993.

On Jan. 30, the state's 4th Circuit Court of Appeals largely upheld Ramsey's ruling, although it cut the emotional distress awards in half. On Thursday, HANO appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court and other defendants are expected to also press appeals, said plaintiffs' attorney Suzette Peychaud Bagneris.

Bagneris said she has asked the Road Home for more than a year to offer buyouts to the Ag Street landfill homeowners, just as the program has done for those affected by the Murphy Oil spill that occurred during Hurricane Katrina in St. Bernard Parish.

"Our requests fell upon deaf ears," Bagneris said.

Stephens said the Murphy Oil spill is not limited by federal rules governing Superfund sites. The Murphy Oil spill has its own section in Road Home policies. Until the state's decision Thursday, there had been no policy for Superfund sites.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Population Rebounds In Storm - Hit New Orleans: Census

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - New Orleans, abandoned by thousands of residents after destructive floods and hurricanes in 2005, was one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the United States last year, according to a report released by the U.S. Census Bureau Thursday.

The Louisiana city's population climbed by 4 percent, with an increase of 39,885 residents between July 2006 and July 2007, making it the eighth-fastest growing metro area in the country, the bureau said.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita slammed into other cities along the Gulf of Mexico in the summer of 2005, and the census said they, too, saw modest increases in their population last year. In Mississippi, Gulfport had 1.8 percent population growth and Pascagoula had 1.6 percent growth. Beaumont, Texas, experienced a 0.5 percent increase in population, and Louisiana's Lake Charles a 0.4 percent increase.

In 2006, the nonprofit research organization Rand Corporation estimated fewer than 200,000 people were living in New Orleans, compared to 485,000 in 2000. Residents were evacuated to cities around the United States and many never returned.

In general, eight of the ten cities with the highest rate of increase were located in the South, the census said, including Palm Coast, Raleigh, Gainesville, Austin, Myrtle Beach, Charlotte and Clarksville.

The 50 fastest-growing cities were split roughly between the South and the West, according to the census, with none located in the Northeast.

In terms of numerical growth, the cities with the largest gains were concentrated in the Southwest, with Dallas netting the most new residents last year at 162,250, according to the census.

The Riverside, San Bernardino and Ontario metropolitan area in California, called "The Inland Empire" by some locals, gained 86,660 residents last year, ranking it fifth in terms of population increases despite a foreclosure crisis that has gripped the desert region for more than a year.

According to RealtyTrac, a database compiling foreclosure rates, foreclosures in Riverside and San Bernardino counties were among the highest in the nation at the end of 2006, in the middle of the census' survey period, and they continue to grow as the housing boom fizzles. Earlier this month, RealtyTrac said the area had the fifth-highest foreclosure rate nation-wide.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Nagin OKs demolition of Lafitte housing complex

The light-brown bricks of the Lafitte public housing complex will soon be rubble.

Mayor Ray Nagin signed its demolition permit Monday, allowing the destruction of all but 196 units, which are being preserved temporarily for returning public-housing residents.

Shortly after the City Council voted in December to demolish the "Big Four" public housing developments, the mayor signed three of the four permits. Since then backhoes and dumptrucks have been working steadily to pull down and haul away apartment buildings at the B.W. Cooper, C.J. Peete and St. Bernard complexes.

But the mayor kept his pen from Lafitte's demolition permit, saying that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development hadn't handed over what he and the City Council had requested. Specifically, as a condition of demolition the mayor and council wanted to see the redevelopers' financing plans, master-development agreements signed by all resident councils, documentation that the Housing Authority of New Orleans had provided enough affordable housing for returning public-housing residents, and an expansion of HANO's current one-man board to include local representation and input.

The mayor had always maintained that he would authorize the Lafitte demolition when HUD provided the necessary paperwork.

Still, preservationists and public-housing advocates held out hope that Lafitte's demolition was being reconsidered. They argued that Lafitte was better designed and maintained than the other complexes being razed and that it was an integral part of the culturally rich 6th Ward.

Those hopes were dashed Monday afternoon after the mayor said that he and council members were "comfortable" that HUD was honoring its wishes.

"We're really disappointed," said Walter Gallas head of the New Orleans field office for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "We believe that the city, HUD, and HANO are making a big mistake."

Sunday, March 23, 2008

People who sold homes early still awaiting state money

Amanda Dumas is not the sort to feel victimized.

Sure, she has multiple sclerosis, a disease that is slowly destroying her muscles and making her more susceptible to illness, but she focuses on the fact that she's still ambulatory, still earning a living. Yes, her Meraux home and the homes of her extended family were destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, but most of them found homes on the north shore, near medical services they need. They've moved on.

Dumas wouldn't even dwell on the fact that she, her parents, her in-laws and other relatives had to sell their St. Bernard Parish houses at a loss. Except for one nagging thing: The Road Home program once promised to help make them whole, and nearly two years after the homeowner relief effort began, the state can't seem to make up its mind.

"They told us we qualified, then they said if they had money left over," said Dumas, a staff member for Taylor Energy in New Orleans. "Well, now they have $1 billion left over and they're still telling us we're in inactive status. It's outrageous."

The state recently determined it has $1 billion in the Road Home budget to restore an elevation grant program it suspended in April 2007. The latest budget estimates also show the state hopes to add hundreds of millions of dollars for other program costs. It also signals, at least for now, that $60 million is being reserved for homeowners who sold their properties early.

Many mixed messages

Of all the homeowner groups who have found themselves in Road Home limbo -- mobile home owners who had to clamor for inclusion, condo owners caught up in confused damage calculations, houseboat residents still seeking eligibility, those facing ownership succession issues -- nobody has been given more mixed messages than the 4,772 applicants who sold their homes before the aid program launched, or before they could make it through the grant decision process.

The group doesn't include thousands of homeowners who sold out in the first year after the 2005 storms and never applied for Road Home help. Details of their circumstances are unknown.

The original Road Home action plan, as approved May 11, 2006, addressed the applicants who sold out early.

"A homeowner that can demonstrate that he or she remains in a loss situation after selling the damaged property to another party may receive assistance under the program to compensate for remaining losses," the May 2006 document said.

Based on comments received during the past year by The Times-Picayune and homeowner advocates, these Katrina victims generally were elderly, disabled or both. They were desperate to sell, and willing to accept a low price, because they were the least able to wait the 10 months it took for the state to launch the Road Home -- or the three-quarters of a year longer it took, typically, to get from filing an application to landing a grant.

Many of them felt forced to leave devastated areas, but often reinvested in Louisiana. There's Peter Tesvich, for example, whose insurance and sale of his Meraux home in March 2006 left him about $40,000 short of recouping his losses as he rebuilds his life in Hammond. Or Hillary Brown, an 80-year-old veteran, who had to sell his Chalmette home in November 2006 for a paltry $29,000, and used his entire life savings to buy a new one in Covington.

They all seemed to be left with the same questions: If the point of the Road Home was to keep Louisiana homes in commerce and encourage storm victims to come back, aren't they prime candidates for grants? And, now that Road Home rules have changed to allow people to collect compensation and later sell their homes on the open market for additional funds, why doesn't it work the other way around?

In the summer and early fall of 2006, as the first applicants started trickling in for Road Home appointments, those who had sold under duress said they were told they qualified, no strings attached. They say that changed in 2007, especially after state officials reported the Road Home would be billions of dollars short of paying those who were rebuilding their homes or selling them to the state. On May 24, 2007, the phrase "subject to the availability of funds" was added to the action plan's section on sold homes.

Dream home lost

"At our appointment in November 2006, they told me as long as we relocated within Louisiana, we qualified and wouldn't be penalized," said William Nuckley, a disabled 74-year-old who estimated he faces a deficit of about $280,000. That estimate is based on application of the Road Home standard of $130 per square foot to his 5,000-square-foot "fortress" of a home in eastern New Orleans, less $263,000 he got from insurance and $106,000 from a private sale.

"Later on, they changed their tune and told us we were last and on the shelf somewhere."

Nuckley sold his Kenilworth East neighborhood home in June 2006, just as the Road Home was gearing up, because he was convinced by program staff and his reading of the newly minted action plan that he could still recover up to $150,000 of his losses.

He and his wife, Adele, were disabled when Katrina hit -- he had just recovered from bladder cancer surgery, she was suffering from heart trouble -- and they tried to ride out the storm. Floodwaters nearly killed them both, hurtling them across the house's interior when the garage door gave way. Their son pulled off a heroic swimming rescue, and a sturdy mattress was used to float Adele Nuckley to a nearby levee, William Nuckley said.

After that traumatic episode and the loss of the dream home he had built to his wife's exacting specifications -- and after a year of waiting for the state to finalize its recovery plan -- they felt compelled to sell, using their insurance proceeds and retirement savings to buy a new home in Destrehan. They expected a Road Home grant to arrive in due time. But the couple never thought they'd spend much of the next year and a half fretting over policy interpretations in an indecisive recovery program.

"We relive this in our nightmares," William Nuckley said. "My wife has crying jags every day. And I just want what's due us -- no more, no less. We worked all our lives. The American taxpayers decided we should have it, but now the politicians, they're just being frivolous with it."

Yes, no, yes, no

Last summer, as Louisiana leaders appealed to Congress for additional billions to keep the Road Home solvent, they left early sellers out of the equation, leaving the impression to many that the group wouldn't qualify for grants. But that changed again in November and December, when Congress came through with $3 billion for the Road Home and state officials announced it would be enough to cover all qualified applicants.

James and Charlotte Rhodes, who sold their Plaquemines Parish home in April 2006 at a loss, received a series of e-mails from Anita Anderson, the Louisiana Recovery Authority's constituent services specialist, that show the dizzying effects of the state's waffling:

--On Nov. 27, Anderson wrote: "At the outset, you were fully eligible to apply for Road Home assistance regardless of whether you sold your property on the open market. However, your application was in a 'holding pattern' to be considered for assistance later, if the budget allowed. Unfortunately, even after receiving the good news of the additional $3 billion in federal funds on the way to plug the budget shortfall, it has been determined there still is not adequate funding to serve homeowners in your situation."

--Then, on Nov. 30: "Persons who sold their homes without assigning the (Road Home) rights to a new owner are not eligible for the program. This has been the policy from the beginning."

--And on Dec. 18, the pendulum swung back: "Although current budgetary data appears to support the notion there may be adequate money in the Road Home budget to serve all homeowners currently in the program, it has not yet been determined whether there will be a SURPLUS. However, in the event there are excess funds available, we will take into consideration the possibility of making homeowners who sold their homes at loss eligible as we move forward in arriving at the budget certainty required to make definitive policy decisions on this issue."

On 'inactive status'

And this month brought the most confusing scenario yet. Applicants who sold their homes early received letters, dated March 12, stating: "Due to current budgetary constraints, it is unlikely that The Road Home will be able to provide funding assistance to homeowners who previously sold their homes."

But that very same day, the LRA, which oversees the Road Home, released budget projections that showed it was setting aside $60 million for sold homes. That would provide $12,610 for each homeowner if all made it through the process and the money were divided equally.

When asked about the apparent contradiction, LRA spokeswoman Christina Stephens said the budget isn't set in stone and the letters to applicants were only making official what's been true for months -- that these applicants have been placed in "inactive" status. That means, she said, that nobody at Road Home is working on their files, but they aren't out of the program entirely.

Dumas said the $60 million budget item was the first time she'd seen any kind of commitment to people who sold their homes early, so she was encouraged. But she said the letters upset her elderly parents, who lived in almost the same size house in Meraux and face a similar loss of about $38,000 when their insurance and sale proceeds are considered. They would benefit greatly even if they could recoup just $10,000 of the loss, Dumas said.

"My husband and I, we'll be OK," she said. "But I worry about the elderly and other disabled people who didn't have a choice."

Friday, March 21, 2008

Road Home set to revise appeals

BATON ROUGE -- State officials and the private contractor that runs the Road Home grant program will completely rewrite its appeals process for disgruntled applicants, according to the state's top recovery executive.

"We're starting with a blank sheet of paper," Louisiana Recovery Authority chief Paul Rainwater told the Legislative Audit Advisory Council on Thursday as he held up an unblemished sheet.

Appeals and "dispute resolutions" have been at the center of applicants' complaints about the state's $7.5 billion residential recovery program, which is under continued monitoring by Legislative Auditor Steve Theriot and now Inspector General Stephen Street.

"It's time to get this program done," Rainwater said, flanked by Road Home Chief of Staff Al Blankenship, an employee of contractor ICF International, which then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco selected in 2006 to run Road Home.

Blankenship echoed his commitment, and Rainwater called the former Marine "an honest broker."

It is not known how many homeowners' appeals the changes would affect, but it could represent a fundamental shift in the much-criticized program given that grant-seekers are allowed to challenge rulings at varying stages of their application process, from a denial of eligibility to the award amount.

$800,000 fine looming

ICF now is under threat of an $800,000 fine if it can't provide proof by May 8 that it has resolved pending homeowner disputes over grant amounts as it claimed to have done last year.

Rainwater and Blankenship did not offer details of what kind of changes they are considering for the state's residential recovery program.

But, making the first comments to lawmakers since last week's revelation that Blanco raised the spending cap on ICF's contract five weeks before she left office, Blankenship told lawmakers to hold him accountable for Road Home's performance.

"The buck stops with me," he said. "I take everything you say seriously . . . and I know how to get things done."

Rainwater said he expects in the next few weeks to get Theriot's and Street's findings after their examinations of the Dec. 7 contract amendment that increased the Road Home operating budget for ICF International from $756 million to $912 million.

Theriot's office is analyzing whether the increase, which would allow more compensation for ICF and its subcontractors, was appropriate. Street is examining who was involved in the process behind the decision, which was made five weeks before Blanco left office.

Rainwater said the contract will "be open for renegotiation" once Theriot and Street release their separate reports.

Auditor weighs in

Theriot, during his presentation to lawmakers Thursday, did not foretell the results of his analysis, but he said previous performance and compliance audits from his office noted that several policy changes to the program would result in increased costs.

That's when amendments to the contract should have been discussed, he said. "You don't issue change orders at the end of the process."

The contract, signed June 30, 2006, is a "time and materials" contract, meaning ICF's charges to the state are based on the numbers of applicants and numbers of varying tasks associated with those cases. The firm also takes fixed payments for travel and a management fee.

A penalty clause was added last year that would fine ICF if it failed to reach certain benchmarks.

To date, the state has received more than $600 million in invoices, including almost $13.7 million for travel and $8.6 million in management fees.

The December amendment bases the higher budget cap on the argument that ICF will pay out far more Road Home grants than originally expected. The document says the number increased from 100,000 to about 160,000.

Yet the program was launched expecting to pay more than 114,000 grants, and estimates for total grants have now dropped to as low as 128,000.

And, as lawmakers noted Thursday, the 103,679 grant closings that ICF has reported in its latest progress report includes homeowners who are still appealing for more money. Some applicants have reported program officials pressuring them to take that route.

The progress report says more than 184,000 applications have been processed, with 155,676 eligible applicants and $6.1 billion in disbursed awards.

Avenues of appeal

Theriot said he still is trying to find out how many of the cases involve ongoing appeals. Rainwater told lawmakers he did not have that number. An ICF spokeswoman referred questions about the number of appeals to the Office of Community Development, the arm of the state that has had direct supervision of the program. An OCD representative did not respond to The Times-Picayune's inquiry.

Besides the final award amount, applicants may appeal eligibility decisions; denial of additional compensation grants; prestorm home appraisals; damage estimates; and FEMA assistance or insurance payments deducted from the award amount, among other decisions.

Current policy dictates that appeals must be submitted in writing to the Road Home appeals office, but only after an applicant has attempted to settle the dispute through the Road Home Resolution Team or Post Close Grant Reconciliation Team.

The process also is particularly complicated for some applicants affected by a period of time when the program dealt with applicants principally via oral communication, leaving disgruntled homeowners lacking the necessary documentation for a written appeal.

After initially defending the oral communication policy as expeditious, the Office of Community Development and ICF agreed under pressure to establish a written record.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

New Orleans Grows; Florida Cools

New Orleans is slowly beginning to rebound from the severe population losses inflicted by Hurricane Katrina, according to new census data, but growth in a number of previous hot spots slowed in the 12-month period that ended July 1, 2007. Broward County in Florida, which includes Fort Lauderdale, lost population for the first time.

“We don’t have as many families moving in, employment has leveled off and started to decline, and housing costs are out of line with reality,” said Bill Leonard, senior planner with Broward’s planning services division.

Other Florida counties were similarly affected. Palm Beach recorded zero growth since 2006, and Miami-Dade registered the lowest growth rate in years.

“Previous hot spots, in Florida, the Mountain West and exurbs, cooled off dramatically,” said William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution. “At the same time, areas that supplied them with migrants — coastal California, cities in the Northeast and Midwest and inner suburbs — held on to a larger number of them.”

He added that because of the weakness in the economy, young families and retirees who might otherwise have relocated “are hanging tight in more stable parts of the country waiting to see what comes next.”

That could explain greater gains or reduced losses, compared with 2005-6, in places like the counties of San Diego, Los Angeles, Orange, San Francisco and Santa Clara in California and in inner suburbs and urban core counties like Middlesex, N.J.; Cook, Ill.; Fairfax, Va.; Hennepin, Minn.; and Philadelphia.

Except for Kendall, near Chicago, the nation’s 10 fastest-growing counties and parishes were in the West and South. More than a third of the 100 fastest growing were in Georgia or Texas.

The top 10 list was led by St. Bernard and Orleans Parishes in Louisiana, which grew by 43 percent (almost 6,000 people) and 14 percent (nearly 29,000), respectively. St. Bernard Parish’s population last July was estimated at nearly 20,000, compared with 65,000 in mid-2005 before Hurricane Katrina struck. Orleans Parish’s was 239,000, compared with 454,000 in 2005. (A spokesman for Mayor C. Ray Nagin of New Orleans said that demographers working for the city had estimated the population of Orleans Parish at closer to 300,000.)

Maricopa County in Arizona, which includes Phoenix, swelled by 102,000 since 2006, making it the biggest gainer numerically. But Maricopa and Harris County, Tex., which includes Houston, gained far fewer people moving from elsewhere in the country than they had the year before.

Since 2000, nearly twice as many counties in the United States sustained population declines as in the 1990s. Mark Mather, deputy director of domestic programs for the Population Reference Bureau, a nonpartisan research group, said that 85 percent of them were nonmetropolitan counties, “mostly areas that are highly dependent on manufacturing, farming or mining.”

Since 1950, the populations of more than 100 rural counties in the Midwest and Texas have shrunk by half or more. “If current trends continue, these counties would be empty by 2050,” Mr. Mather said. “The weak economy since 2000 may be pushing people back to metropolitan areas to find jobs with decent wages.”

In the New York City area, growth slowed, with the biggest numerical and proportional losses in Nassau County and the biggest gains in Staten Island and Manhattan (which grew by more than 8,000, accounting for more than half the state’s gains). New York City officials routinely challenge the census data, arguing that it undercounts minorities and immigrants.

In many counties that otherwise would not have grown or would have suffered greater losses, an influx of foreigners and immigrant births compensated for the departure of native-born residents or for a relatively low rate of natural increase in births over deaths. “This is especially true,” Mr. Mather said, “for the core counties of big cities such as Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami and New York.”

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Study: Road Home grant process slow and unpredictable

Homeowners who sold their hurricane-damaged properties to the state through the Road Home program generally waited 100 days longer to receive their money than those who opted to get cash to rebuild, according to preliminary results of an independent study of the beleaguered grant process.

Owners of condominiums also faced grant delays, waiting about 50 days longer than owners of single-family homes and duplexes to receive their grants. Meanwhile, shorter -- but still significant -- lag times were faced by homeowners who carried wind and flood insurance, compared with those without coverage.

Researchers with the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute offered no conclusions as to why certain categories of homeowners waited longer for Road Home money. But their broad findings echoed what has been a familiar theme: The process of landing a Road Home grant is slow and unpredictable.

Highlights from the study were presented Tuesday during a meeting at the University of New Orleans of the Louisiana Recovery Authority's housing committee. They were among the initial results of a $49,000 "in-flight review" that the LRA commissioned in August. The LRA ordered the study to identify "points of delay and error introduction that inhibit the quality and efficiency of the program."

Wait time about 8 months

In reviewing thousands of applications that were moving through or had completed processing by Dec. 18, researchers pegged the median wait time for receiving a grant at 243 days, or about eight months. That means half the grant recipients waited less than that period and half waited longer, according to a two-page fact sheet distributed at Tuesday's meeting.

In some cases, the wait was far longer, researchers said.

"RAND found that although some applications have been processed in a timely manner, the timeliness of the grant-making process overall has not been consistently fast and predictable. Grant wait time has ranged widely, with some homeowners receiving grants in as little as two months and others waiting as long as 500 days," the fact sheet states.

Researchers relied on data provided by ICF International, the Virginia firm that could receive as much as $912 million for managing the Road Home program.

The study found that applications have not always been handled on a first-come, first-served basis.

"As of December 18, 2007, many thousands of eligible applications were still in progress, and some of these were among the earliest to enter the grant-making process," the document states.

Rick Eden, the report's principal investigator, said researchers reviewed 57,000 cases in which applicants had received money by mid-December and 79,000 others that were "active and eligible" at that time.

Eden said some delays were caused by homeowners who dallied in their decisions about whether to use Road Home money for a buyout or for rebuilding. But he said a review of data and of ICF's process showed that while the contractor pushed to meet monthly quotas for closings, it had little regard for the pace of individual applications.

"There were not necessarily goals that addressed the experience of each individual applicant," Eden said. "They had program goals."

In many cases, delays began the moment an application was sent to ICF, he said.

"A lot of applications got off to a slow start due to long initial processing time," Eden said.

Report leaves questions

Though rife with detail about the time that applications spend in the various stages between application and closing, the preliminary findings did not satisfy all housing committee members.

Melanie Ehrlich, co-founder of Citizens Road Home Action Team, said RAND focused too little on customer service.

"I'm most disappointed to see it's mostly focused on timeliness and not what matters right now to the applicants, which is quality closings," she said.

Walter Leger, the housing committee chairman, wanted to know whether the analysis identified any process changes that could be implemented immediately.

"What steps can we take to analyze right now what can be done in terms of resolving the more difficult cases?" he asked.

Eden, however, said RAND still was working into the report comments from members of the LRA and state agencies, ICF employees and others, and would not have a complete slate of conclusions or recommendations for at least a month. A peer review by other experts is still needed, he said.

"Please ask your peer reviewers to read fast," Leger said.

Despite requests from Leger and The Times-Picayune, researchers refused to release a copy of the detailed computer presentation displayed Tuesday, which included scores of charts and graphs breaking down application data by type of applicant and stage of the grant process. Data provided by ICF for the RAND analysis did not include any personal information about applicants, such as names or Social Security numbers.

RAND spokeswoman Lisa Sodders cited "corporation policy" in saying that RAND generally does not make public such "work product." She added that the think tank's release of preliminary details Tuesday was unusual, that such precise information is typically withheld until the writing of a final report.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Katrina Aftermath Erodes Bayou Culture

GRAND BAYOU, La. -- When Ruby Ancar talks about her fishing village on the bayou, she says a divine hand has protected her Atakapa-Ishak kinfolk for generations.

But Grand Bayou is forsaken these days, 30 months after Hurricane Katrina washed over it and dragged one of Louisiana's last authentic outposts of bayou culture into a world defined by insurers, money lenders, building code enforcers and government auditors.

''We're facing a greater hurricane now than we did with Katrina, with the bureaucracy,'' Ancar, 60, said, gesticulating passionately and flashing a toothy grin as she glided down the bayou in a boat. ''The government -- that's our hurricane right now that we're in.''

Before Katrina, Grand Bayou and its 25-odd families of Atakapa-Ishak American Indians lived in a parallel world, in concert with moon cycles and migrations of shrimp. This living museum, where there are no roads and everyone travels by boat, is facing extinction.

Post-storm government aid has been nearly nonexistent, villagers said, leaving the entire village unable to return to their homes.

''We were hanging onto that little village out there, but I think the hurricane took the last wind out of us,'' said Louis Thompson, known as ''PU.''

Thompson commanded the communal boat, a banana-yellow water taxi tied up since the storm. ''It was a school boat, medical boat, grocery boat, just about everything else boat,'' he said.

Grand Bayou's state of despair resembles that of the Lower 9th Ward, 40 miles away in New Orleans. Both are lifeless. Both are poor. Both were colorful enclaves of traditional Louisiana culture.

They are exhibits in a pattern emerging since Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005: The widening gap between rich and poor in rebuilding.

''The similarities have to do a lot with economic challenges. If these people were middle or upper income in general they would have the resources to go back and build their houses,'' said Shirley Laska, a University of New Orleans sociologist.

The gap between rich and poor is plainly evident on the horizon of wind-blown marsh-grass at Grand Bayou.

A mile away, the community of weekend sport fishermen and retirees at Happy Jack is bouncing back.

A recent survey showed that of Happy Jack's approximately 83 waterfront homes only about 11 showed no sign of being rebuilt. Shaded docks, automatic boat lifts, jet skis and personal water craft abound.

''This place is built probably better than before the storm,'' said Willie Bullock, who retired from the Navy and moved to Happy Jack with his wife. ''I love it here. This is where I was meant to be.''

Down the gravel road, Brad Schmit, a 35-year-old sun-bronzed fishing guide, was void of complaints, too. ''Business is good,'' Schmit said, ''about the same as before the storm.''

Things are so normal, it's hard to tell Katrina made landfall just 15 miles south of Schmit's busy fishing camp where stressed-out city folk come to get away. The offices, shower room, patio and boat deck are rebuilt, smell new; guides and customers lounge and talk of fish, nature and the gleaming fiberglass boats; brand new pickup trucks await to take everyone back to comfortable, high-tech homes in the city.

Happy Jack is growing. Excavators have prepared ground for 60 more lots that will be up for sale by the summer.

''In the last two days we've had two different parties from the Florida area telling us, 'This is where we like to fish,''' Diana Alfortish, a real estate broker for the developer, said recently.

The significance is not lost at Grand Bayou: An uncomfortable circle of outsiders and development is drawing tighter.

On a recent short-sleeves winter day, during a break in the shrimp harvest, Dwight Reyes Sr. stepped off his boat, where he's lived with his wife since Katrina wrecked their home, and surveyed the neat-and-clean silhouette of Happy Jack.

''Weekend warriors, that's all that is,'' Reyes sneered.

He turned his back, and paced back-and-forth through the dock yard, scattering roosters and ducks camped out in beached skiffs, heaps of rope and nets, rusting boat parts and assorted junk.

''They're people with all kinds of money and all kinds of help,'' he said, attempting to explain why Grand Bayou looks like a ghost town sinking into the marsh.

He stopped, and grinned. He'd found the right aphorism. ''They've got a smile from ear to ear, we've got a frown.''

His wife, Theresa, bent-over and grim-faced, stewed seafood on a stove on the boat deck in a washed-out smock and said nothing.

''I've got fed up with trying,'' Reyes said, and sneered at the state-managed, federally funded flagship of the hurricane recovery, the Road Home program.

''Everywhere you go they turn you down. I just got off the phone a while ago with (Road Home) telling me I need papers for this. I'm tired of faxing paper in.''

Turning reminiscent, he looked at the bayou and said he used to like to trawl its placid, moon-burnished waters for shrimp on hot, critter-noisy nights.

''Doing this here at night, it makes you sick,'' he spat out. ''You don't see a light in none of the houses. You don't see nobody outside hollering at you, asking if you're doing any good.''

Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, is familiar with Grand Bayou's problems.
''When I took office a year ago, nothing had been done on Grand Bayou,'' he said. ''To me, they were forgotten.''

He said Road Home wasn't equipped for people living on the margins of society, in funky wooden properties on the water with no road to reach them.

''It's hard to get their hands around the value of their property,'' Nungesser said.
Recovery officials say they haven't forgotten Grand Bayou

''We have been out in that community really hard,'' said Gentry Bran, spokeswoman for ICF International, the company that oversees Road Home under a $756 million contract. ''I would challenge the concept they're not getting assistance from the Road Home.''

A sample, though, of five Road Home applicants interviewed by the AP suggests money has been slow to reach Grand Bayou's 25 families. Two applicants had received grants while three others hadn't. Road Home would not disclose how much money each applicant got nor give an idea about how much money in all has gotten to Grand Bayou.

Back on the bayou, time has stopped.

Dock and home are broken and twisted. The ''Hallelujah Hotel,'' where visiting ministers stayed during revival services, is a pile of debris on the waterfront. Farther down the bayou, the

Pentecostal Light Tabernacle Church is closed, its pastor gone.

''PU,'' the school boat driver, lives in a trailer in town, as do many others. Children of working age have left. They're in Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia.

Memories are all that remains, like boating across the bayou to Grandma's house for

Thanksgiving dinner and kitchen chatter in French patois.

Grand Bayou now counts on charity.

The Mennonite Disaster Service, a volunteer network of the Anabaptist church, has rebuilt Ancar's home and plans to build five new homes and renovate another one.

''The location of their homes, the shrimping and fishing, and their lives are bound together, woven together. We want to honor their way of life and location choice, just like anyone else in the parish,'' said Paul Unruh, a Mennonite social worker.

Unruh said building costs will be high because of post-storm requirements, such as raising homes 10 feet and tougher building standards.

Ancar thinks she can pioneer the return.

''We're going to be campers on my floor until the homes are rebuilt,'' she said. ''It doesn't take long to build a house.''

But the march back home is proving difficult for Ancar, who has not yet moved into her rebuilt home from her FEMA trailer in town.

The problem? Her budget is so tight she'll find it hard to pay a new $20 hurricane-related monthly surcharge the power company is tacking onto bills.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Blanco defends Road Home firm's raise

Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco on Friday defended her decision in December to increase the Road Home contractor's maximum pay by 25 percent, even as Louisiana officials threaten the stiffest fines yet against the company for failure to prove it met a key performance standard.

The Office of Community Development has put the contractor, ICF International, on notice that it will be fined $800,000 if it can't provide more convincing proof by May 8 that it resolved homeowner disputes as it claimed to have done in July, August and December of 2007.

The pending fine, if assessed, would bring total fines against the company to $925,000. The fines would have reduced the amount ICF could earn from its promised maximum pay of $756 million, but just before the year ended, its pay limit, set by contract, was increased to $912 million. Its possible income from running the homeowner portion of the Road Home went up 25 percent, from $633 million to $789 million.

Key legislators and the Louisiana Recovery Authority's housing chairman, Walter Leger, said they didn't know about the raise until The Times-Picayune inquired about it Wednesday.

But on Friday, Blanco and her former commissioner of administration defended the pay raise, saying other state offices were involved in negotiations with ICF.

Repeated review

"It was my understanding and belief that any contract change would be publicly noticed," Blanco said in an e-mail message sent from France, where she's giving a speech to a flood-response conference. "I encourage Steve Theriot, the legislative auditor, whose office was consulted during negotiations, to continue to audit ICF and to hold them accountable for every dollar of their contract."

Theriot said he would begin dissecting the amendment costs immediately.

Jerry Luke LeBlanc, who acted as Blanco's representative in signing the contract amendment, said former LRA Executive Director Andy Kopplin and key legislative staff also were involved in calculating the amount of the increase and gave their approval.

"When I was brought the final contract (amendment) everyone was in agreement that this is the final amount," said LeBlanc, who left state government when Blanco left office in January. "LRA, OCD (Office of Community Development) and auditor folks, who took a look at a component of it -- they all analyzed the data. Before I would sign it, I wanted multiple elements to look at it."

Kopplin, who recently completed an unsuccessful campaign to fill an open congressional seat, was on vacation and couldn't be reached for comment Friday.

A quest for offsets

Kopplin's successor, Paul Rainwater, said the LRA's staff was notified at the time, but had no oversight of the contract and "urged the (the administration) to offset contract increases to the extent possible with reductions in other portions of ICF's contract, to aggressively manage ICF's labor costs to achieve savings or to increase the contract amount incrementally."

That wasn't done and now Rainwater, an appointee of Gov. Bobby Jindal who wasn't with the LRA at the time, is left to find ways to keep the costs from reaching the new $912 million cap.

"It is outrageous that ICF couldn't do the job for more than $750 million and that they were given a pay raise after their history of disappointing service," Jindal said.

Even Leger, still an LRA member and a self-described Blanco "fan," is baffled by the increase, given that many political observers believe difficulties managing the Road Home, Blanco's signature recovery program, played a lead role in ending her political career.

"It's just kind of surprising that this company that's partially responsible for her not seeking re-election gets treated this way," said Leger, whom Blanco picked to handle LRA housing issues.

Figures don't agree

In the amendment itself, the parties justify more money for ICF by saying it will pay out far more Road Home grants than originally expected. The document says the number increased from 100,000 to about 160,000. However, the program launched expecting to pay more than 114,000 grants and estimates for total grants have now dropped to as low as 128,000.

LeBlanc said the state had to pay the Road Home contractor more money "because ICF was going to have to either stop processing cases or it would trickle down to a snail's pace" because they "would run out of money to pay their subcontractors."

But when the amendment was signed in December, ICF, a publicly traded company, was wrapping up a profitable quarter in which revenue shot up 64 percent over that of the same period in 2006, mainly because of payments for running the Road Home program.

LeBlanc said staff for a key legislative audit committee asked OCD and LRA to come to a hearing a week after the amendment was signed to answer questions about the pay increase, but then never raised the matter at the meeting. He said Blanco administration officials didn't bring it up in that forum because they can only respond to committee questions.

While all that was happening, state officials were publicly expressing concern about homeowners' myriad complaints that Road Home staffers provided poor customer service, often failing to return phone calls, explain grant delays or resolve disputes. Rainwater says he remains worried about those issues.

He said that was the reason a new contract to handle FEMA elevation payments was not given to ICF and why he's asked Louisiana State University to conduct a customer service review.

"We are sending a letter to each employee of ICF concerning some of the ways they've talked to some of our people and treated some citizens," Rainwater said. "I expect people who have already gone through a lot to be treated with dignity."

Friday, March 14, 2008

HUD Secretary Draws Strong Criticism at Hearing

WASHINGTON — Several Democratic senators sharply criticized the secretary of housing and urban development on Wednesday, warning that accusations of wrongdoing threatened to undermine his leadership.

The Justice Department and the housing department’s inspector general are investigating whether the secretary, Alphonso R. Jackson, improperly steered hundreds of thousands of dollars in government contracts to friends in New Orleans and the Virgin Islands.

On Wednesday, Democratic lawmakers also raised concerns about accusations that Mr. Jackson threatened to withdraw federal aid from the director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority after he refused to turn over a $2 million property to a politically connected developer.

The lawmakers pointed to an e-mail exchange in January 2007 between two senior HUD officials who discussed making the Philadelphia housing chief, Carl R. Greene, unhappy by taking away his federal aid.

Mr. Jackson, who appeared before the Senate banking committee on Wednesday, said he could not discuss the e-mail messages because they were linked to a lawsuit filed against HUD by Mr. Greene. Last year Mr. Jackson denied complaints of favoritism, telling senators, “I do not interfere with any contract that is given in HUD, period.”

Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut and chairman of the banking committee, told Mr. Jackson on Wednesday that he remained “deeply troubled” by the reports of impropriety.

Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, said controversy had been “swirling around your stewardship of this department for far too long.”

“This kind of stuff undermines public confidence in our officials,” Mr. Casey said of the e-mail messages, which were first published by The Washington Post.

In the messages dated Jan. 12, 2007, Orlando J. Cabrera and Kim Kendrick, two assistant secretaries at HUD, discussed Mr. Greene.

“Would you like me to make his life less happy? If so, how?” wrote Mr. Cabrera, who has since left the department.

Ms. Kendrick responded with a smiley face.
“Take away all of his federal dollars?” she asked.
Mr. Cabrera wrote back: “Let me look into that possibility.”

In February, Jerry Brown, a HUD spokesman, denied that Mr. Jackson had attacked Mr. Greene for refusing to turn over a parcel of land to Kenny Gamble, the soul songwriter and producer. Mr. Brown said Philadelphia stood to lose millions of dollars in financing because the city had failed to meet the requirements of a decade-old housing plan.

“There was no retaliation,” Mr. Brown said. “These two things had nothing whatsoever to do with each other.”

Mr. Greene denied that his department had failed to meet a federal requirement that 5 percent of its public housing be made accessible for the disabled. He described HUD’s decision to withhold aid as “a vendetta because I would not participate in a corrupt scheme.”

Concerns about favoritism in the distribution of HUD contracts first arose in April 2006 after a speech by Mr. Jackson. The secretary had said he canceled a contract for a company after its president told him that he did not like President Bush. Mr. Jackson later said he had made the story up.

Federal officials are investigating whether Mr. Jackson steered work at the Virgin Islands housing authority and rebuilding work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to friends. HUD officials have declined to comment on those matters because they are under investigation.

At the hearing on Wednesday, Mr. Jackson said the judge overseeing the lawsuit filed by Mr. Greene had asked the parties not to discuss that case. “I just do not feel at ease discussing this, given the judge’s request,” he said.

Two Republican senators, Mel Martinez of Florida and Wayne Allard of Colorado, said they understood Mr. Jackson’s reluctance to discuss the matter.

Mr. Martinez, a former HUD secretary who brought Mr. Jackson to the department as his deputy, described his successor as a diligent and honest man caught between his desire to respect the judge and the senators.

“You’re in an untenable position here,” Mr. Martinez said. “I know you’re a good man, and I know you’re trying hard to do a good job.”

Some senators dismissed the notion that the judge had barred Mr. Jackson from speaking.
Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, said his staff had researched the matter and found that there was no such order. Mr. Specter, who tried to mediate the dispute between HUD and the Philadelphia housing authority, said he would ask Mr. Jackson about the issue in a hearing on Thursday.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Documents Feed Debate on FEMA Trailers

Federal officials issued trailers to Hurricane Katrina victims even though some workplace safety tests detected high levels of formaldehyde at government staging areas for the structures just weeks after the storm, a lawyer for hundreds of occupants said Wednesday.

Documents from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration raise new questions about how much federal officials knew about the units, which were sent to tens of thousands of displaced residents, said attorney Anthony Buzbee. But they don't say whether the tests in the weeks after the August 2005 storm were conducted inside or outside the trailers.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which issued the trailers, has been moving residents out for several months because of health complaints.

Recent tests on hundreds of FEMA trailers and mobile homes in Louisiana and Mississippi found formaldehyde levels about five times what people are exposed to in most modern homes, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last month.

At its peak, more than 143,000 trailers were in use by Katrina victims across the Gulf Coast. About 34,000 are still occupied.

Buzbee said he reviewed a 10-page summary of test results from air sampling at FEMA staging facilities in Mississippi that found formaldehyde levels exceeding maximums set for federal workplace safety. Buzbee said the documents show some tests were performed as early as Oct. 11, 2005, and as late as Jan. 17, 2006.

''This is astonishing,'' Buzbee said Wednesday in an interview. ''How could they feign ignorance that this was an issue even before they sent these trailers to residents?''

It was unclear whether the tests were performed by OSHA or FEMA. Clyde Payne, OSHA area director, said he couldn't comment on the test results obtained by Buzbee.

FEMA spokesman James McIntyre wouldn't immediately comment on Buzbee's allegations, but he said formaldehyde tests at work sites are required under federal law.

''These are just safety tests for personnel,'' he said. ''They were never designed for the occupants.''

Formaldehyde, a preservative commonly used in construction materials, can cause respiratory problems and is believed to cause cancer.

FEMA lawyers had discouraged officials from investigating residents' health complaints because of liability concerns, according to documents released by a congressional panel in July 2007.

Buzbee wrote about the test results in a letter Wednesday to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and several members of Congress.

Adam Sharp, a spokesman for Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said the information provided by Buzbee will be fodder for a congressional panel's review of FEMA's response to formaldehyde concerns.

''One of the essential questions this investigation will answer is, 'What was the timeline?''' Sharp said. ''How much of a lag existed between when FEMA became aware of the (formaldehyde) dangers ... and when did they first start notifying trailer occupants about the dangers?''

In testimony before a congressional panel last week, a CDC official said problems with formaldehyde in trailers date back to the 1980s.

Howard Frumkin, director of the CDC's National Center For Environmental Health, said the problem seemed to ''recede'' until FEMA used tens of thousands of travel trailers to shelter victims of the 2005 storm.

''FEMA has never denied that trailers have formaldehyde,'' McIntyre said. ''We haven't tried to hide anything.''

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Slidell council overrides veto, allows trailer replacements

A second attempt by Mayor Ben Morris to prevent a handful of Slidell residents from replacing mobile homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina failed Tuesday when the City Council pulled together just enough votes to override his veto.

The council voted 6-3, exactly the two-thirds vote needed to override the mayor's veto, enacting an ordinance to allow about five residents who live in District A, which includes the area in and around Olde Towne, to replace their storm-damaged mobile homes. The owners have either left Slidell or have been living in FEMA trailers since shortly after the storm more than 2 1/2 years ago.

Council members Warren Crockett, Kim Harbison and Bill Borchert sided with the mayor.

The city's zoning code prohibits new mobile or manufactured homes in Slidell, but the council allowed such homes already in District A to remain when it adopted the code. The code prohibits new mobile homes even if the old ones are destroyed by an act of God.

An initial attempt to pass the ordinance in April 2006 was unsuccessful.

The council reconsidered the ordinance in September and passed the measure, only to see Morris veto it the next month. The council's attempt to override the veto fell one vote short.

In the interim, two new members were elected to the council, so Councilman Lionel Hicks reintroduced the measure Feb. 12, hoping it would pass again with enough votes to override a potential second veto. Hicks, who represents District A, has been leading the charge to allow the residents to replace their mobile homes.

The measure passed that night by a 6-3 vote, and Morris again vetoed it, leading to Tuesday's override.

'A long, hard fight'

Hicks said he hoped Tuesday's vote would be the final hurdle for the residents trying to rebuild.

Hicks said after the vote that he is glad the council can move past the issue and concentrate on the other problems facing District A.

"It's been a long, hard fight, and I want to thank my colleagues on the council who stuck by me," he said. "And shame on those who didn't."

Only one resident spoke against the council's override attempt. Pat Hamrick said she didn't think it wise to pass an ordinance that would encourage people to place new trailers in a flood zone.

"Placing trailers in that area will in all probability have us facing this problem again in a few years," she said.

Crockett said he couldn't vote for the override because he never could determine exactly who needed new trailers, and he didn't see many people come before the council to defend such an exception to the zoning code.

Borchert said he has met with a local faith-based group that has agreed to build new homes for some residents, including those in District A. As such, he said he couldn't support allowing new trailers in the area.

Prior to the vote, Hicks pleaded with his fellow council members to let the residents replace their mobile homes.

"These people need to get back to some degree of normalcy. Everybody does," he said. "I just believe, and I ask this council to consider, to please vote to override this veto."

Measure deemed racist

Morris, who has been outspoken on the trailer issue, did not comment Tuesday with regard to the override attempt. However, he outlined his reasons for the veto last month in a letter to the council.

He called the ordinance racist, reiterated his concerns that mobile homes aren't safe during severe storms and noted that residents have refused to accept his help in finding more secure homes.

Morris said the ordinance is racist because its "negative implications affect a predominantly African-American neighborhood and nowhere else in our city."

Hicks, the council's sole black member, said Morris didn't have a good reason for vetoing the measure and that the mayor has no idea what it's like to be poor. He also took issue with the mayor's description of the ordinance as racist, saying it looked to him as if Morris was the one being racist.

Some of the people affected by the mobile home ban are senior citizens on fixed incomes who cannot afford regular houses, Hicks has said. He also noted that some would not qualify at their ages for 30-year mortgages.

Though the council's action will allow a few residents in District A to place new mobile homes on their properties, the trailers still would be prohibited for other residents in District A and elsewhere in the city. Any resident who wants to replace a mobile home must request a permit from the city, which will attempt to verify that a trailer existed on the property before the storm.

The replacement mobile homes must be occupied by the owner. Rental properties would be prohibited, and the new mobile homes will be limited to single-family use. Residents also would have to adhere to rules regarding lot size, off-street parking and skirting around the base of the homes, in addition to other city regulations.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

HUD: Survey Validates N.O. Demolition

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- A majority of public housing residents dispersed by Hurricane Katrina do not want to return to the old brick buildings they lived in before the storm, according to a Department of Housing and Urban Development survey.

The results were significant because housing officials have argued that the poor people who lived in public housing were not beholden to life in the old complexes because they were plagued by crime and malfunctioning apartments.

HUD said the survey, released Thursday, validated its plan to demolish four sprawling complexes and replace them with mixed-income, mixed-use neighborhoods.

Critics and many residents, however, have complained that the demolition plan runs counter to the wishes of residents and will wind up shrinking the amount of cheap housing and drive poor black people out of the city.

Donald Babers, a HUD official appointed to head the Housing Authority of New Orleans, said the survey results highlight what the agency has been ''saying for the past two years.''

''Most families do want to return, but they want to return to a better home and a better environment and don't want to return to the concentrations of deteriorating, obsolete public housing that they left,'' Babers said.

The survey got in touch with 2,109 of New Orleans' 5,100 public housing families. About half of those surveyed had already moved back to New Orleans by the time the survey was done between October 2007 and February.

The other half, those who had not moved back to New Orleans, fell into two main groups: 34 percent said they wanted housing vouchers when they got back to New Orleans and 37 percent said they did not want to return to New Orleans. Only about 13 percent of the residents said they wanted to return to public housing in New Orleans. About 70 percent of the displaced residents want to come back to New Orleans, the survey found.

The survey was conducted by the University of Texas at Arlington and Survey Communications Inc. of Baton Rouge. HUD was asked to do the survey by U.S. House members concerned that New Orleans' poor were being left out of the city's rebuilding.

Sheila Crowley, the president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said she was concerned about how many of New Orleans' public housing residents were not surveyed.

''That's a lot of people whose preferences we do not know about,'' she said. ''I am worried about where the rest of the residents are.''

Housing advocates say the hurricane-hit region is in the midst of a housing crisis and that it will become even more acute as more people are forced out of their government trailers in the coming months.

Friday, March 7, 2008

N.O. housing is still in crisis

While more than 70 percent of New Orleans' displaced public housing residents want to return to the city, most of those surveyed recently by the University of Texas at Arlington said they have no desire to return to New Orleans' public housing complexes.

And there's another striking finding, especially when cast against the backdrop of a raging debate over plans to demolish the city's "Big Four" complexes: More than 80 percent of those families who lived in C.J. Peete, B.W. Cooper, St. Bernard and Lafitte, the developments slated for the wrecking ball, said they now would prefer to live elsewhere.

Among pre-Katrina HANO tenants who say they favor living back in their old apartments, 20 percent of the total -- virtually all of them -- are already doing so, survey results show.

The survey of 2,109 families who lived in Housing Authority of New Orleans complexes before Hurricane Katrina was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the agency that wants to demolish most buildings in the storm-damaged developments and replace them with a newer model of mixed-income units.

HANO plans to replace 4,500 demolished public housing units with 3,200 public housing units and 1,765 subsidized affordable units, for people at slightly higher income levels.

While the survey seems to validate HUD's strategy for ensuring housing slots for all displaced HANO residents who want to return, Bill Quigley, a lawyer for demolition opponents, said the broader housing needs of low-income families must be addressed.

Competition is fierce

"They're saying 3,200 is enough for the ones who lived in HANO units, but there are many more who lived in other subsidized housing," he said. "The competition for the 1,765 affordable subsidized housing units is 7,000 people," according to an earlier survey by the social action group PolicyLink, he said.

In addition, Quigley said, Katrina's destruction created a new population of needy families who also weren't considered in HUD's survey.

"At the end of the day, you can't then say this is enough housing for them (HUD) to meet their duty under the law, which is to provide enough housing for the community," he said.

The number of survey respondents equaled 41 percent of the 5,146 families who occupied HANO units at the time of Hurricane Katrina.

HUD hailed the survey as highly representative because, in addition to the large sample size, the distribution of respondents' pre-Katrina residences closely mirrored how families were spread among the 10 public housing developments and scattered-site HANO units in New Orleans.

C. Donald Babers, the lone member of the HUD receivership board that runs HANO, said the survey proved that the government's plan to replace traditional public housing with mixed-income complexes and other homes would be sufficient to meet the needs of those who want to come back. He said that flew in the face of housing advocates' demands for a one-for-one replacement of the traditional complexes.

It also could be used to counter arguments by housing advocates and even two United Nations experts that HUD's demolition plans discriminated against black people and violated international human rights law.

'Ready to move'

The HUD survey results were announced just hours before a U.N. panel, meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, was scheduled to rule on whether the U.S. response to Hurricane Katrina had violated an international anti-racism treaty, but Babers said the timing was purely coincidental.

If the preferences expressed by the survey respondents were to bear out for all 5,146 affected families, about 1,800 will want to return to HANO facilities and 1,900 would prefer obtaining Section 8 vouchers for private apartments in New Orleans. Public housing residents and advocates generally accepted the survey results as highly indicative of the desires of the displaced, some representatives said.

"It's true, a lot of people were ready to move and wanted to get Section 8 vouchers even before the storm," said Cynthia Wiggins, a current resident of the Guste complex who was part of a residents group that helped formulate the survey questions and track down the displaced. "There's no doubt in my mind that is the case."

Responses to some questions may be affected by what residents knew about plans for their old neighborhoods. Former residents may have been aware that their old apartments were scheduled for demolition, or that they are already gone. Also, Quigley said the question of whether people want to return to their old apartments doesn't make clear that renovating the old units would make them better.

The University of Texas at Arlington researchers and a contracted survey team from Survey Communications Inc. of Baton Rouge developed the survey questions in consultation with HUD and resident leaders, with input from critics of HUD's plans, such as U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and housing activists.

Don't know about benefit

The survey included former housing complex residents who are now scattered around the country, but half of the respondents are back in New Orleans, either living in restored HANO units or in private apartments on HUD vouchers.

The survey also probed still-displaced residents' reasons for not coming home, and exposed a weakness in HUD's relocation efforts. Nearly 80 percent of those outside New Orleans who want to return said they wanted to be back home within the next six months, but the vast majority of that group said their return would be delayed by a lack of transportation or by moving expenses.

Babers said it was disheartening to see the persistence of such perceived barriers when HUD has a contract with U-Haul to pay for travel and moving expenses of returning families. He said HUD needs to do a better job of advertising and explaining the program.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Critics admit they didn't visit, research post-Katrina New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS | A United Nations panel will decide Friday whether the U.S. government's response to Hurricane Katrina violated a treaty on racism, and its ruling could be influenced by a controversial statement from two U.N. advisers who last week labeled the planned demolition of four New Orleans public housing complexes as "discriminatory" even though neither visited the city to research the issue.

Last week's statement drew international media coverage and was hailed by opponents of a plan to replace the four housing complexes with mixed-income neighborhoods, although the plan also calls for the Department of Housing and Urban Development to retain several other public housing complexes in New Orleans. HUD also has provided vouchers through which former public housing residents can rent private apartments across the city.

The U.N. specialists now acknowledge that they haven't been to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina and were basing their opinion largely on the views of activists who have waged an unsuccessful campaign to halt the demolitions.

Miloon Kothari of New Delhi, India, the U.N. Human Rights Council's specialist on adequate housing, and Gay McDougall of Washington, D.C., the U.N. independent expert on minority issues, joined ranks with opponents of the demolitions already under way at the St. Bernard, C.J. Peete and B.W. Cooper complexes.

The statement implied that the demolition of public housing in New Orleans would end up "increasing poverty and homelessness," particularly for black hurricane victims. It called for more planning input from residents and former residents. It also dismissed the HUD plans as too slow and insufficient for the 5,000 residents of traditional public housing units displaced after the storm.

Local and federal public housing officials argue that public housing families who want to return are being served through traditional public housing or private apartments. And they say plans for a shift to mixed-income housing will better serve the families who remain.

World watching
Although the duo say they released the statement to influence the U.S. Congress, the timing of their comments could have broader influence.

The statement was released in Geneva, Switzerland, last Thursday, a day before a U.N. treaty enforcement panel -- meeting in the same European city but with no link to the two advisers -- was to discuss U.S. government responses to Hurricane Katrina. That committee is scheduled to decide Friday whether 12 nations, including the United States, are adhering to the International Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

The committee isn't likely to go beyond a public shaming if it finds the United States in violation of the treaty, but even that step could be damaging. In the past, the panel has denounced Australia's policies toward Aborigines and genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.

Kothari and McDougall's statement made the case that public housing plans in New Orleans amount to a violation of international human rights law. They say "the inability of former residents of public housing to return to the homes they occupied prior to Hurricane Katrina would in practice amount to an eviction for those who returned or wish to return." In telephone interviews, they later called for a one-for-one replacement of any public housing units that are demolished.

'I haven't studied it'
The treaty under review in Geneva, however, upholds only a right to adequate housing, not a right to return to the exact housing that was lost. When asked this week about the U.S. government's plans to continue providing apartment vouchers to displaced tenants while developers carry out a new model for public housing, Kothari demurred.

"Of course, if the situation is that people are arriving back to New Orleans and their housing is demolished, you have to provide alternative housing," he said. Asked whether the U.S. government is doing just that, he said: "I don't know. I haven't studied it."

Kothari and McDougall said their statement last week had nothing to do with the Geneva treaty review, but rather was part of their own attempts to engage U.S. authorities over recovery issues in New Orleans. They consulted with non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, some of which protested the demolitions in the city. But they acknowledged they had no feedback from the other side of the debate because federal officials didn't respond to questions they posed in December.

They said they were prohibited by U.N. protocol from going directly to Mayor Ray Nagin, the City Council or any other local or state officials.

"We haven't done a formal fact-finding in New Orleans. Some of our (U.N.) colleagues have, but we haven't," Kothari said in a telephone interview from his home in India. "The intention of our statement was to raise the issues, to say, look, these are the problems, and we expect a formal response from the (U.S.) State Department."

The colleagues he referred to include David Stanfield, who is crafting a U.N. report on land-rights issues after Katrina, and Walter Kaelin, the U.N. secretary-general's specialist on displaced people. Both have visited New Orleans recently.

Feedback questioned
The statement by Kothari and McDougall implied that the shuttering of public housing complexes has contributed to the growth of a homeless population in the New Orleans area now estimated at 12,000. But Kothari later said he has no evidence of that.

Also, the statement claimed affected families weren't meaningfully consulted about the demolition plans, but Kothari later acknowledged that some residents did meet with developers.

"Yes, some people were consulted," Kothari said, "but the fact that people's property was destroyed, the fact that not every unit is going to be replaced, the fact that there's an affordability crisis, and with the pressure HUD put on the City Council and the mayor -- that subsidies would be withdrawn if they didn't go on with the demolitions -- the question is: Has there been clear and informed participation in the redevelopment of the whole city?"

Kothari said letters from U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson to Nagin threatening to cut off some federal subsidies if demolitions were halted amounted to institutional racial discrimination.

Federal and local officials reacted strongly last week to the pair's statement. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., called it "theater of the absurd."

HUD said Kothari and McDougall "are misinformed about the state of public housing in New Orleans," adding that the plans to demolish old, hurricane-damaged complexes is part of a wider effort to move to a mixed-income model that will help "minority and low-income Americans .¤.¤. live in a socially and economically integrated environment."

The New Orleans City Council said it approved the demolitions after hearing extensive public feedback.

Ruling coming Friday
The International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination will rule Friday on U.S. compliance with the treaty it joined in 1994. The ruling will be based on a report the United States provided in 2007.

In its report, the U.S. government argued there was no racial discrimination in the response to Katrina. It said the disparate effects of Hurricane Katrina on housing for minorities stemmed from poverty issues, not race.

U.S. activist groups responded by filing so-called "shadow reports" to the U.N. treaty panel. They argued that international law's standard for discrimination is not whether the government intends to discriminate, but whether the end result of its policies have a disproportionately negative impact on minorities.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

CDC Late on FEMA Trailer Issue

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should have reacted sooner to concerns about hazardous fumes in government-issued trailers housing thousands of Gulf Coast hurricane victims, a CDC official told a congressional panel Tuesday.

''In retrospect, we did not engage the formaldehyde issue as aggressively and as early as we should have,'' Howard Frumkin, director of the CDC's National Center For Environmental Health, told a Senate subcommittee on disaster recovery. The committee met in Washington.

The CDC announced last month that tests on hundreds of occupied Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers and mobile homes found formaldehyde levels that were, on average, about five times higher than what people are exposed to in most modern homes. The results prompted FEMA to step up efforts to move roughly 35,000 families still living in the trailers after the 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

''This is a little too late,'' Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., told Deputy FEMA Administrator Harvey Johnson Jr. during Tuesday's hearing.

Johnson said the number of occupied trailers on the Gulf Coast, which peaked at more than 143,000 after the hurricanes, has dropped to about 34,000 as FEMA rushes to move people into safer housing.

''FEMA takes very seriously our responsibility to provide for the safety and security of disaster victims,'' he said. ''Our primary focus is to help those households relocate from temporary housing to more permanent solutions as quickly as possible.''

In mid-2006, FEMA enlisted the CDC's help in analyzing the results of air-quality tests on unoccupied trailers. But the CDC didn't start testing the air quality in occupied FEMA trailers -- or study the possible health effects of long-term formaldehyde exposure -- until late last year.

Frumkin said the safety of trailers should have been a top priority soon after the hurricanes hit, but that CDC scientists were ''extremely engaged'' in other environmental health issues.

''Formaldehyde in trailers didn't rise to the top of our priority list at that time, and if I could roll the tape back, I would change that,'' he said.

Formaldehyde can cause respiratory problems and has been classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and a probable carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Frumkin said problems with formaldehyde levels in trailers date back to the 1980s, but seemed to ''recede'' until FEMA used tens of thousands of travel trailers to shelter victims of the 2005 storms.

Last week, FEMA announced that it is expanding its effort to identify safer alternatives to trailers and mobile homes.

Landrieu asked if the recent test results on FEMA trailers and mobile homes also apply to privately owned mobile homes. Frumkin said the results ''may not be generalizable to other trailers in other settings.''

Landrieu also pressed Johnson to explain why a FEMA report on disaster planning, due in July 2007, still hasn't been submitted to Congress. Johnson said FEMA hopes to deliver the report by April 1.