Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Study: Road Home grant process slow and unpredictable

Homeowners who sold their hurricane-damaged properties to the state through the Road Home program generally waited 100 days longer to receive their money than those who opted to get cash to rebuild, according to preliminary results of an independent study of the beleaguered grant process.

Owners of condominiums also faced grant delays, waiting about 50 days longer than owners of single-family homes and duplexes to receive their grants. Meanwhile, shorter -- but still significant -- lag times were faced by homeowners who carried wind and flood insurance, compared with those without coverage.

Researchers with the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute offered no conclusions as to why certain categories of homeowners waited longer for Road Home money. But their broad findings echoed what has been a familiar theme: The process of landing a Road Home grant is slow and unpredictable.

Highlights from the study were presented Tuesday during a meeting at the University of New Orleans of the Louisiana Recovery Authority's housing committee. They were among the initial results of a $49,000 "in-flight review" that the LRA commissioned in August. The LRA ordered the study to identify "points of delay and error introduction that inhibit the quality and efficiency of the program."

Wait time about 8 months

In reviewing thousands of applications that were moving through or had completed processing by Dec. 18, researchers pegged the median wait time for receiving a grant at 243 days, or about eight months. That means half the grant recipients waited less than that period and half waited longer, according to a two-page fact sheet distributed at Tuesday's meeting.

In some cases, the wait was far longer, researchers said.

"RAND found that although some applications have been processed in a timely manner, the timeliness of the grant-making process overall has not been consistently fast and predictable. Grant wait time has ranged widely, with some homeowners receiving grants in as little as two months and others waiting as long as 500 days," the fact sheet states.

Researchers relied on data provided by ICF International, the Virginia firm that could receive as much as $912 million for managing the Road Home program.

The study found that applications have not always been handled on a first-come, first-served basis.

"As of December 18, 2007, many thousands of eligible applications were still in progress, and some of these were among the earliest to enter the grant-making process," the document states.

Rick Eden, the report's principal investigator, said researchers reviewed 57,000 cases in which applicants had received money by mid-December and 79,000 others that were "active and eligible" at that time.

Eden said some delays were caused by homeowners who dallied in their decisions about whether to use Road Home money for a buyout or for rebuilding. But he said a review of data and of ICF's process showed that while the contractor pushed to meet monthly quotas for closings, it had little regard for the pace of individual applications.

"There were not necessarily goals that addressed the experience of each individual applicant," Eden said. "They had program goals."

In many cases, delays began the moment an application was sent to ICF, he said.

"A lot of applications got off to a slow start due to long initial processing time," Eden said.

Report leaves questions

Though rife with detail about the time that applications spend in the various stages between application and closing, the preliminary findings did not satisfy all housing committee members.

Melanie Ehrlich, co-founder of Citizens Road Home Action Team, said RAND focused too little on customer service.

"I'm most disappointed to see it's mostly focused on timeliness and not what matters right now to the applicants, which is quality closings," she said.

Walter Leger, the housing committee chairman, wanted to know whether the analysis identified any process changes that could be implemented immediately.

"What steps can we take to analyze right now what can be done in terms of resolving the more difficult cases?" he asked.

Eden, however, said RAND still was working into the report comments from members of the LRA and state agencies, ICF employees and others, and would not have a complete slate of conclusions or recommendations for at least a month. A peer review by other experts is still needed, he said.

"Please ask your peer reviewers to read fast," Leger said.

Despite requests from Leger and The Times-Picayune, researchers refused to release a copy of the detailed computer presentation displayed Tuesday, which included scores of charts and graphs breaking down application data by type of applicant and stage of the grant process. Data provided by ICF for the RAND analysis did not include any personal information about applicants, such as names or Social Security numbers.

RAND spokeswoman Lisa Sodders cited "corporation policy" in saying that RAND generally does not make public such "work product." She added that the think tank's release of preliminary details Tuesday was unusual, that such precise information is typically withheld until the writing of a final report.