Friday, February 22, 2008

Time runs short for Jeff trailer dwellers

After next week, Jefferson Parish will turn its caseload of residents who still have FEMA trailers over to attorneys who will start filing lawsuits to extract people from their emergency housing units.

The move marks perhaps the final major push in the parish's yearlong effort to eradicate trailers from front lawns and driveways. Calling for a post-hurricane return to normalcy, parish officials last year reactivated codes that prohibit trailers as permanent housing in residential neighborhoods. The restrictions include trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, privately owned trailers and storage units.

March 1 is the deadline for residents to remove trailers from unincorporated areas of Jefferson before parish attorneys begin filing suits in 24th Judicial District Court. The parish will ask judges for orders compelling homeowners who are still trailer dwellers to comply with the zoning rules. Judges also could consider the arguments from residents that their houses remain unlivable with storm damage as they wait on contractors, insurance or money from the state's Road Home program.

Previously, residents had been able to win extensions from parish-hired inspectors and parish hearing officers as long as they could demonstrate that the people living in a trailer were the same residents of the household as before Hurricane Katrina and that they faced legitimate hardships in fixing their houses.

"This will allow a judge to make that determination," said Matthew Friedman, an assistant parish attorney handling trailer cases, about the new parish strategy of filing lawsuits. "It takes it away from the parish attorneys, the Parish Council."

Homeowners who have asked FEMA to take their trailers can avoid a parish lawsuit by filing an affidavit with parish attorneys indicating they have contacted the federal agency but are waiting for a crew to arrive. The affidavit also authorizes parish officials to call FEMA on behalf of homeowners and press for trailers to be hauled away.

"The affidavit is probably the new twist on this," said Bert Smith, deputy chief administrative officer for Parish President Aaron Broussard. "It puts the brakes on the lawsuit the parish attorneys would be filing."

Jefferson officials estimate about 1,500 trailers remain in residential neighborhoods in unincorporated parts of the parish, a count that has steadily dropped from more than 17,000 in the months after the 2005 hurricanes.

Officials have been urging people who still need housing assistance to contact FEMA about a rental assistance program now being run in conjunction with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The FEMA telephone number is (888) 294-2822.

To get a copy of the affidavit indicating that a homeowner has asked FEMA to remove a trailer, residents can visit and click on the news release about the March 1 deadline. Residents also can pick up copies of the affidavit at the Joseph S. Yenni Building, 1221 Elmwood Park Blvd. in Elmwood, or the General Government Building, Suite 5200, at 200 Derbigny St. in Gretna.