Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Road Home appeals proving productive

More than half of all Road Home applicants who file formal appeals succeed in persuading the state homeowner aid program to give them more money, according to new statistics.

The Road Home had reviewed a total of 8,770 written appeals from homeowners by March 27, reaching final decisions on 4,834 of them, the program's latest weekly report said.

After reviewing the applicants' contentions, the program agreed its calculations or eligibility determinations were wrong 58 percent of the time: 43 percent deserved more money, 8 percent should have been ruled eligible for awards that they were denied and 7 percent got too much money, the report said.

The Road Home ruled its award was correct 41 percent of the time.

The statistics about appeals were released as the Road Home began an effort to collect overpayments from some applicants, the number of which could range from 1,000 to 5,000, officials have said. The Road Home appeals staff already decided, as of March 27, that 362 of the applicants who appealed formally should have their grants reduced by an average of $14,986. Overpayments to the appealing applicants totaled $5.4 million.

But far more often, the Road Home determined the homeowner did in fact deserve a higher grant. The program reports that as of March 27, it was on the hook to pay a total of $51.4 million in additional disbursements to 2,078 applicants, an average of $23,726.

As of that date, 645 of the homeowners already had received additional disbursements totaling $20.3 million.

The state has set aside $218.4 million in its Road Home budget to handle additional payments to all appealing homeowners.

About 2,000 applicants were still waiting for decisions on their appeals for larger grants, and another 2,000 dispute the Road Home's ruling that they are ineligible, the report said. It also said that 486 applicants who didn't like the Road Home's ruling on their appeal have lodged an appeal with the state Office of Community Development, which oversees the program.

The appeal numbers do not include thousands of applicant complaints that went into the Road Home's dispute resolution process. Paul Rainwater, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, recently used his newly expanded authority over Road Home to eliminate dispute resolution from the program, mandating instead that all substantive issues go through formal appeals.

A pair of Road Home applicants filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court last week contending that the Office of Community Development violates their constitutional due-process rights when it declares in closing papers that its grant determinations are "final" and "non-appealable."

Some appealing applicants are represented by pro bono attorneys who say the Road Home doesn't comply with its own deadlines for deciding appeals cases. Also, applicants say they can't contact the Road Home appeals team once they file their formal complaint. Rainwater has said that will change, too, so appealing homeowners can answer the appeals team's queries or provide more supporting documentation when needed.

Rainwater's spokeswoman, Christina Stephens, said he has rejected three drafts of changes to the appeals process.

"He's looking for anything to increase responsiveness and cut the wait time," Stephens said.