Sunday, February 10, 2008

FEMA trailers deadline looming

Only three weeks remain for people living in FEMA trailers to get out for good under Jefferson Parish's continuing crackdown on the emergency housing units.

March 1 is the no-exceptions date when residents in about 1,500 remaining trailers will no longer be able to ask inspectors for more time. All cases will instead switch from inspectors to parish attorneys and be decided by parish hearing officers or in the courts.

Zoning laws against using the trailers as permanent housing in residential areas will return to full force, said D.J. Mumphrey, an executive assistant to Parish President Aaron Broussard who supervises the crackdown. He said residents' arguments that they still need the units as they rebuild from the 2005 hurricanes will be closely scrutinized.

It's going to be under a microscope," Mumphrey said, suggesting the parish will turn to judges in the 24th Judicial District Court or other venues to force residents out of their trailers. "It's our intent to go to the courts with this."

Mumphrey estimated that about 1,500 trailers remain in front of houses in the unincorporated parts of Jefferson that fall under the trailer removal campaign. Including cities and one remaining trailer group site operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a total of 2,168 units still dotted the parish at the end of January.

The big white boxes that symbolized the early phases of Hurricane Katrina recovery peaked in Jefferson Parish in 2006, when FEMA counted more than 19,000 of them in the parish.
Arguing for the need to restore normalcy in neighborhoods, the parish last year launched its effort to remove them, reestablishing the codes that prohibit them and sending teams of inspectors to post violation notices on trailer doors.

Inspectors granted extensions to residents who demonstrated their houses remained unlivable with storm damage, while other cases went to hearing officers who listened to residents' cases and allowed extensions or imposed fines.

The remaining cases involve disagreements between residents and the parish that inspectors and code officials cannot resolve, so parish attorneys will now take over the effort, said Louis Savoye, code enforcement director.

"There's a vast majority that probably, in our eyes, aren't justified," Savoye said. "In the owners' eyes, they are."

We feel like these decisions are too critical for us bureaucrats to make," he said.
Because FEMA must honor local laws, Savoye said the parish might refer some cases to the federal agency, giving federal officials notice that trailers are in violation of codes and must be removed.

"We have been as cooperative and as helpful as we can to the vast majority of the citizens," Savoye said. "You have to be compassionate, but if you sit around, people will take advantage of you. You have to be compassionate, but aggressive."

Trailer dwellers who still need housing help as they recover from Katrina can seek rental assistance through FEMA, parish officials said.

Gina Cortez, a spokeswoman for the agency, said case workers can help people locate apartments and qualify for rental aid in a program that has been operated jointly by FEMA and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development since December.

That program is also slated to phase out. Beginning in March, people receiving disaster rental help will have to pay $50 toward the cost of their rent, a number that will rise by $50 each month until residents are covering their entire housing bills or the assistance program ends entirely in March 2009.

The program, however, also refers people to social services and job training, Cortez said. "What we want is to work with them step by step to help them get back on their feet," she said.
Cortez said FEMA is cooperating with Jefferson to move residents from trailers and into the rental assistance program.

Partly under pressure from the parish, the agency has closed all but one of the 13 trailer enclaves that it once operated in Jefferson for storm victims who did not have another place to put a trailer. The remaining site, near Louis Armstrong International Airport, is scheduled to close in April.

Savoye said a handful of trailers remain installed outside businesses, but they occupy a low priority in the parish's trailer removal push because officials have not received any complaints about trailers in commercial areas.

The Jefferson trailer drawdown is a piece of a broader, post-Katrina code enforcement campaign in Jefferson that has also targeted rental storage units, blighted buildings, overgrown lots and abandoned swimming pools.