Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Did Road Home treat all neighborhoods fairly?

It depends on how you look at it

Mortgage lender Carol Johnson has seen her clients and neighbors, mostly black middle-class folks, struggle to return to New Orleans from their post-Katrina exile, while the city's more affluent areas are buoyed by the sounds and sights of rebuilding.

Johnson believes the disparity has much to do with the way the Road Home relief program works. So she was angered but not surprised recently when she scanned a map produced by demographer Greg Rigamer, one showing how different parts of the city fared in the allocation of Road Home grants.

Reflecting about 40,000 Road Home grants in Orleans Parish through April 15, Rigamer's map shows the highest concentration of grants between $115,000 and the $150,000 limit went to residents of Lakeview, Lakewood and Eastover -- among the most expensive real estate in the city's heavily flooded neighborhoods. Eastern New Orleans, by contrast, has a high concentration of grants between $40,000 and $65,000.

The disparity can be traced, to a large degree, to a decision by the Louisiana Recovery Authority and federal housing officials to calculate grants based on a home's pre-storm value or an estimate of how much it should cost to rebuild it -- but mandating that the grant must be the lower of the two figures. In areas with modest-to-low property values before Katrina hit, the formula typically means a lower grant amount.

"This is discrimination based on the pre-storm value of a house," said Johnson, whose company serves mostly minority customers. "Someone in Pontchartrain Park can't rebuild, but you take the same property in Lakeview and you'd get a lot more money."

But the pattern that caught Johnson's eye doesn't tell the complete story. The assumption that the amount of Road Home grants should guarantee every homeowner the financial resources to rebuild is flawed, based on program rules. The federal government classifies Road Home as a compensation program, intended to combine grants with insurance proceeds to help homeowners recoup the pre-storm value of their home.

Federal officials were guarded about compensating homeowners well beyond that amount. If compensating homeowners for the pre-storm value leaves them in need of additional money to rebuild, the owners could try to cover the gap via a low-interest loan through the Small Business Administration. Road Home also allows an additional grant of up to $50,000 for residents in the lowest income brackets.

Looking solely at the average amount of Road Home grants by neighborhood also overlooks an important factor: The amount of money those homeowners originally paid to purchase homes in the city's more expensive locales. For example, it makes sense that a homeowner in Eastover would receive a larger compensation grant simply because that homeowner spent more money to buy a home in Eastover before the hurricanes. Moreover, the Eastover homeowner may still be in the hole because the grants are capped at $150,000.

Middle-income areas, including much of eastern New Orleans, were likely to receive the smallest Road Home grants because of the mix of modest property values and high rates of insurance coverage. And families in those neighborhoods typically found they made too much money to qualify for the low-income supplementary grants.

To determine how well the Road Home program has compensated homeowners for their losses, Rigamer's analysts at GCR & Associates Inc. analyzed average grants as a percentage of median pre-storm values in each neighborhood.

That data run showed that the program most fully compensated those in lower-income neighborhoods but fell short in covering homeowner losses in more affluent areas where losses typically exceeded the $150,000 grant limit.

The analysis shows:

-- Average Road Home grants were actually higher than the pre-storm values of homes in large swaths of poorer neighborhoods, places that served as the emotional touchstones of Katrina's wrath. The typical grant recipient in the Lower 9th Ward, St. Claude, St. Roch, the 7th Ward, Central City, Hollygrove and parts of Gentilly collected more than 115 percent of the neighborhood's median property value.

-- Residents in Lakewood, West End, Lakeview, Lakeshore and Lake Vista -- fully or partly flooded zones with high grant averages -- each received less than the citywide average of 68 percent of pre-storm value.

"It's the upper-priced homes that had the biggest gaps in protection," said Arthur Sterbcow, president of the Latter & Blum real estate firm and someone who has testified on Capitol Hill about New Orleans market challenges since the 2005 storms. "Lakeview, Eastover: These guys got the shortfall."

In Lakeview, many homes were enormously costly to repair, said GiGi Burke, a real estate agent who focuses on lakefront neighborhoods.

"It affected the very wealthy, too, and you don't hear too much about that," she said. "The bottom line is, they're losing a lot more money."

--- Less value, same costs ---

The Road Home grant figures don't provide a complete picture of who has enough to rebuild and who doesn't.

The unprecedented federally underwritten program was designed to work hand-in-hand with insurance payments and other government disaster aid to make homeowners whole, but the amount of insurance carried by homeowners varied widely. Without knowing insurance payouts, generalizations from grant data can be misleading.

But some trends are emerging as data become available from about 109,000 grants, valued at $6.4 billion. The impact of the program on rebuilding rates dates to Louisiana recovery officials' choice to use pre-storm values of properties as a key reference point.

While a home in Lakeview was worth substantially more before the storm than a home of comparable size in the Lower 9th Ward, owners of either destroyed home face similar costs, on a per-square-foot basis, in paying for materials, labor and other construction costs.

But when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development classified the Road Home as a compensation effort instead of a rebuilding program, that drove how grants would be calculated. In a compromise designed in part to limit costs, federal and state officials agreed use the lower of a property's pre-storm value or a replacement cost of $130 a square foot for homes more than 51 percent damaged.

A 1,500-square-foot house totaled by storm waters in Lakeview, for example, might have been worth $250,000 before Katrina. In the Lower 9th Ward, a home of the same size may have been worth $70,000. But while the Lakeview owner's grant would be calculated on the basis of a $195,000 replacement cost, the 9th Ward owner's would be based on the much lower pre-storm property value.

If both homes had been covered by $40,000 in insurance, the Lakeview home would have qualified for the full $150,000 Road Home grant and the 9th Ward applicant would have been left with $30,000. The 9th Ward homeowner would have been fully compensated for the pre-storm value of the property, while the Lakeview resident would be short $60,000.

Both likely would need more money to rebuild, but the fully compensated 9th Ward homeowner would need more. Lower-income families can apply for loans to close the gap, but they typically face more difficulty qualifying.

The LRA recognized the potential problem and created an additional loan -- the state later made it a simple grant -- of up to $50,000 for those making less than 80 percent of the metro area's median household income. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sets the 80 percent limit at $36,500 for a family of two and $45,600 for a four-person household.

With the additional grant, it's possible for a low-income homeowner to collect up to $50,000 more, although the total Road Home grant still cannot exceed $150,000.

If the theoretical 9th Ward homeowner qualified as low-income, he or she could have collected a total of $80,000 from Road Home, more than the home's $70,000 pre-storm value.

"It shows the Road Home program was progressive in a way," said John Lovett, a law professor at Loyola University who has criticized the Road Home's design. "Maybe it was more generous than we give it credit for."

--- Grants affect return rate ---

That doesn't mean the program is generous enough to spur rebuilding.
Through April 15, 1,242 Lower 9th Ward families had received Road Home checks. That's more than 40 percent of the 2,975 owner-occupied units identified by the federal government immediately after Katrina flooded virtually every property in the area.

Yet nonprofit groups estimate that only 10 percent to 15 percent of families have returned to the Lower 9th Ward. They believe a key reason is the reliance on pre-storm property values in the Road Home formula.

Residents who gathered for a Lower 9th Ward workshop last weekend were eager to learn how to appeal for more Road Home money. Most left disappointed, realizing they couldn't buck the grant formula.

Robert Richardson inherited his 1,283-square-foot home on Caffin Avenue when his father died. Road Home officials informed him it would cost more than $166,000 to rebuild the home, under the $130-a-square-foot formula, but its pre-storm value was just $71,000. Even with a $50,000 low-income grant, Richardson said the resulting $92,000 Road Home award wouldn't get him close enough to the full cost of rebuilding.

"Three generations of my family owned that house," he said. "The formula makes it seem like it's fair across the board when it isn't."

One way Richardson could rebuild the home is to apply the $92,000 toward the cost and seek a $74,000 mortgage to cover the balance. Although he would be left making payments on a home he owned outright before the flood, he would own a completely rebuilt home presumably meeting stronger building codes than the dwelling that existed before the flood.