Saturday, January 12, 2008

Blanco fumes about delays in housing program

BATON ROUGE -- Despite her demands for immediate action, Gov. Kathleen Blanco will leave office Monday without seeing construction begin on the first of 534 planned alternative housing units for hurricane victims.

Mississippi, which was one of three other states to receive a slice of a $388 million federal Alternative Housing Pilot Program, has placed occupants in 1,223 housing units in that state's three coastal counties. That's at least a quarter of the units Mississippi is planning as part of its two-year program.

In a Nov. 3 letter to Louisiana Housing Finance Agency President Milton Bailey, Blanco ordered construction to begin by the end of that month and forbade any ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The state officials and private contractors who spent much of last year bickering about the "Louisiana Cottage" project still refuse to commit to a construction start date, but all parties said this week that groundbreaking at Jackson Barracks, the first location for the project, is imminent.

A spokesman for the project manager, the Cypress Group of Baton Rouge, said the next step is for his consortium to finish devising its construction schedule and solicit proposals from the remaining subcontractors.

"We've got a substantial amount of planning and engineering work that will occur," Ben Dupuy said Friday. "The good news is that everything is moving forward with all deliberate speed."

Several other long-lingering hurdles have finally been toppled.

Work orders issued

The Louisiana Housing Finance Agency, the state department charged with administering the federally financed program, has issued work orders and approved all the subcontracts of Cypress' principal partners, which include the Shaw Group as construction manager.

Federal environmental regulators have cleared Jackson Barracks, the Louisiana National Guard headquarters that was inundated during and after Hurricane Katrina, for construction.

A third-party project monitor, Grace & Hebert architects of Baton Rouge, is in place, and Dupuy credited the firm with helping smooth feathers that had been ruffled last year as the Cypress Group, Blanco, FEMA and Louisiana Housing Finance Agency board members and staff offered competing and sometimes caustic versions of why the project has lagged.

At Jackson Barracks, where 75 residences eventually will serve employees of the state Military Department, Lt. Gen. Hunt Downer said the state National Guard has been ready. "We're just waiting on Cypress and LHFA," he said Friday.

And on her last day in the administration, Kimberly Robinson, a Blanco adviser who represented the governor on the project, said her boss remains angry that the project stalled so badly.

"The governor is not pleased with the progress that has been made on this project," Robinson said. "We are pleased to know that the sites that have been identified are at least ready for construction. .¤.¤. We are pleased that we worked out the details and cut the red tape that was causing so many delays."

Mississippi got more

Blanco, who has seethed about the project from the beginning because Mississippi received $281 million compared with Louisiana's $75 million, selected the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency as the lead agency after FEMA announced the award amounts in December 2006.

Cypress had already been selected as the project developer by the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which identified the proposals that were submitted to the federal officials who judged competing proposals from the five Gulf Coast states. Cypress was the only Louisiana proposal to get financing.

Congress approved the plan as a way to test alternatives to the FEMA travel trailers that still serve as housing for some Gulf Coast families displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

Besides the Jackson Barracks site, the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency board has approved plans for 85 units at a Lake Charles site and 80 units in Baton Rouge. An initial Baton Rouge site is facing some environmental regulatory roadblocks but remains in consideration, said Jeff DeGraff, an agency spokesman.

DeGraff and Robinson said officials are looking at a second Baton Rouge site, the Renaissance Village tract that still serves as a FEMA trailer park.

The Lake Charles site is owned by the city, where the City Council has not yet approved transferring the land to the state housing agency. Dupuy said Lake Charles officials want the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency to approve plans for the structures eventually to be sold to occupants, rather than simply serve as rental units.

The housing agency controls the selection process of occupants.

The remaining cottages not accounted for in the approved sites could end up in New Orleans, pending talks between the housing board and the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority about thousands of tracts of private land that the authority has acquired since Katrina.

Robinson said the units are not likely to be placed on individual parcels because it would increase the per-unit cost. She said the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority is examining contiguous units that could be combined.