Wednesday, April 9, 2008

FEMA to close Renaissance Village trailer site May 31

BAKER -- Margaret Chopin is quick to share her photograph of an East Baton Rouge Parish garden home, highlighting its well-kept lawn, ample garage and generous space for her husband, son and granddaughter.

But the New Orleans native and former Gentilly resident won't call it home any time soon.

Because a possible lease on the property fell through, Chopin shows it off only to illustrate the frustration and longing that come with living in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer in Renaissance Village, which opened in October 2005 in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

For Chopin and her neighbors, most of them from the New Orleans area and most having lived in Renaissance Village since it opened, the angst magnifies daily with the approach of FEMA's May 31 deadline to close all its remaining group trailer sites.

At one time the largest concentration of the travel trailers along the Gulf Coast, Renaissance's fences now envelop fewer than 190 trailers. This is down from the 580 that once filled the expansive gravel lot, which is just a short drive from the Louisiana Capitol. Residents have no monthly rent but do pay for propane.

Those who are left essentially have two choices: Find permanent housing or move to a hotel for 30 days on the federal government's dime while continuing their hunt.

Most would qualify for subsidized rent under a program financed by FEMA and run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Residents would have to contribute $50 rent the first month, with their share increasing by $50 each month thereafter. The subsidy would end when the beneficiary covers the full rent amount or in March 2009, whichever comes first.

"I think some people think FEMA is going to come down out of the sky and give a lump sum to the people still here," said resident Bonnie Vernon, originally from Metairie, as she folded clothing in the communal laundry facility before hauling it back to her trailer in a red wagon with only three wheels. "I don't see how anybody who's lived through the last two years could believe that."

Manuel Broussard, spokesman for FEMA's Gulf Coast Recovery Office, described the situation as an opportunity for flood victims to couple self-reliance with the aid of FEMA case workers and the financial boost from the HUD-FEMA Disaster Housing Assistance Program to resume their lives.

'There's no way'

Statewide, group sites account for about 900 of the 20,146 FEMA trailers that were occupied as of April 4. More than 80 percent of those still in group sites were renters before the storms.

All residents are assigned a FEMA case worker to provide rental listings and put them in touch with potential landlords, but residents must secure the leases.

Broussard expressed concerns about meeting the closure deadline for parks in places such as Plaquemines Parish and southwest Louisiana, where he said trailer occupants outnumber viable rental units. But, he said, "we believe we're going to be in pretty good shape" getting the last 185-plus households out of Renaissance.

A more pessimistic view pervades among Renaissance residents, employees and Catholic Charities case managers who work in the park alongside FEMA's case workers. Citing a web of aggravating factors, they said the transition from a trailer is easier to talk about than to accomplish.

Wilbert Ross, displaced from the Lower 9th Ward, said "there's no way" FEMA will meet its deadline at Renaissance. Ross already has left the park once, but could not keep up with his rent.

Sam Sammartino, disaster response director for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, noted that FEMA has failed to meet previous deadlines for other Baton Rouge-area parks -- Mount Olive, Granberry, Sugar Hill -- typically by several months. He said Catholic Charities even attempts to slow down some residents who might be signing a lease they won't be able to afford once the subsidy runs out.

"It's easy to sit there and say, 'These people ought to get a job, get it together and move out,'" said Sammartino, who supervises more than a dozen recovery case workers for more than 900 client households in 12 parishes. "We would want everyone to consider that each case is complex, each case different."

The peak population for Renaissance was estimated in excess of 1,600 -- with more than 3,000 people residing there at some point since its opening. Sammartino said the current number of residents likely is at least double the 188 trailers. Most of the remaining households have children or senior citizens, or both.

Broussard said FEMA does not keep statistics on whether evacuees return to their original home parishes or neighborhoods. He said a majority have settled around Baton Rouge. New Orleanians who want to return mostly can do so, he said, provided they do not insist on returning to their previous neighborhood.

High local rents

The chief complaint about housing for those still looking is the rising rents of post-storm East Baton Rouge Parish, which was growing before the 2005 hurricanes and has absorbed a net gain of at least 25,000 people since.

Chopin, who works three part-time jobs inside the park, said her search for a home in East Baton Rouge Parish had been mostly discouraging. "If you can afford it, you don't want to live there," she said.

The disaster housing assistance will pay as much as 125 percent of the average fair market value for a residence in a given parish. Carol Spruell, spokeswoman for Catholic Charities, estimated that in East Baton Rouge, this is $800 to $900 for a two-bedroom apartment, more for a house. Both figures are considerably higher in Orleans Parish, she said.

Spruell said her organization estimates it would take at least a $17-an-hour, full-time job to make that rent in Baton Rouge with two dependents.

Transportation troubles

Residents say the lack of transportation also hampers their housing search.

Chopin said she and her husband have one car, but he uses it to get to his job on the support staff at a local school. That makes it difficult, she said, to balance her typical 11- to 12-hour work days with trips to find housing. "A case worker might take you or might not," she said.

A bus route, paid for by FEMA, runs about every hour from the park to the local Wal-Mart, Baker Library and central public bus terminal in Baton Rouge. But the last bus typically returns to the park at 9 to 10 p.m., residents said, limiting late-shift employment options.

For Renaissance residents who can find a place, additional barriers come in the form of utility and lease deposits, transporting trailer belongings to an apartment and buying appliances that none of them has now.

FEMA pays some deposits, and Catholic Charities fills some additional needs not covered by FEMA. But help with furniture and appliances falls entirely on private organizations.

One of the most frustrating gaps in service, Sammartino said, is transportation for moving. FEMA has a relocation assistance program, but the Renaissance residents who hail from the New Orleans area but settle around Baton Rouge do not qualify because they are not returning close enough to home.

"I've asked FEMA just to send trucks up here," he said. "I've gotten no response."

Mood of 'despair'

In some respects, FEMA officials said, Renaissance Village represents success stories. Empty trailer spots, marked by water pipes and other infrastructure rising from the gravel, dwarf the number of temporary residences still set up.

In the rear of the park are a playground and classroom buildings housing early childhood learning centers. The project was financed by actress-comic Rosie O'Donnell's foundation. Arcenia Crayton, a resident of the park from its opening until October 2007, staffs another building that serves as a community center in the morning before shifting to an after-school program.

But Chopin said the overriding mood still is "depression, ... despair." Sammartino said he daily fights "fear of the unknown" and "paralysis even among people who know what they need to do." And "FEMA" remains a four-letter word in most conversations.

Sammartino and others, meanwhile, said they worry FEMA will begin urging residents into hotels come June.

"Their job is not necessarily to get people into the right situation," said Crayton, who before the storm lived in Marrero with her husband and three sons. "Their job," she said, "is to get people out of that trailer."