Issue #147, Fall 2006
"It's Like You're Walking But Your Feet Ain't Going Nowhere."
In Texas, evacuees from Hurricane Katrina wonder if their lives will ever get back to something approaching normal.
By Kristin Carlisle
In a small, immaculate apartment on the sprawling edge of Austin, Texas, Helen Bogan, 75, watches television from the confines of her wheelchair. The apartment is dark, lit only by one small lamp. Money is too tight to waste it on electricity, says Gaynell Bogan, 45, her daughter and full-time caretaker. Television is an exception because ever since Helen’s massive stroke two days before Hurricane Katrina, she hasn’t been able to do much else.
Helen’s stroke was the first of two catastrophes that struck one year ago and from which the Bogans are still struggling to recover. The hurricane’s winds were gaining strength over the Gulf of Mexico when Gaynell returned home to find Helen lying in bed, flushed, dry and unable to move. She rushed her to the hospital. The next day, the storm hit with biblical force, sending nine feet of water into Gaynell’s newly-renovated, wood-frame house in New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood. Gaynell, her sister Valerie, who has Down’s Syndrome, and her daughter Christy were evacuated to a barren highway intersection in Metairie, Louisiana, where they waited without shelter for three days.
“When I see homeless people on the street, it reminds me of being out there…I used to turn my head, never thinking I would be in that position,” says Gaynell. “But for three days we were homeless, and I almost felt like we were forgotten.” Finally, a bus came to take the Bogans to Austin, making them part of the greatest mass displacement in the United States since Reconstruction.
These days Gaynell is once again feeling the sting of abandonment. In June, she received a letter from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) informing her that beginning July 1, she would no longer be eligible for housing assistance. The letter did not provide any clear reason as to why she is ineligible for the transitional 408 housing program, which is meant to replace emergency aid.
Now that their rental assistance has ended, the Bogans eat more red beans and less meat. “These are tight times. The main thing is making sure we have money for rent and utilities,” says Gaynell. “I really hate that FEMA had to make the decision not to help people with rental assistance, because there are some people out there that really do need it. I guess they feel like ‘we can’t take care of you forever’…but people are not living in good situations right now.”
The Crisis in Texas
Perhaps the most devastating aftereffect of FEMA’s termination of rental assistance is that housing in Texas cities is not affordable to low-income evacuees. Since Gaynell lost her assistance in June, she has paid $750 a month for a three-bedroom apartment in Northeast Austin next to the interstate. Rent is considerably more than her $530 mortgage payment in New Orleans. With a summertime energy bill of over $250, her housing expenses exceed $900 a month. She cares full-time for her mother, who was transferred from New Orleans to a hospital in Texas and now lives at home. Gaynell’s sister, who, in addition to Down’s Syndrome, has congestive heart failure, also requires constant care, and 14-year-old Christy is in her sophomore year of high school.
Caring for two disabled adults is full-time work in itself, Gaynell says, and though she has applied for several jobs, she cannot leave Helen and Valerie at home. “I will take care of [my mother] for as long as I possibly can and for as long as she has breath in her body,” she says. “I held a job for 16 years. The only time I took off is when I took vacation and I rarely did that…I know I need a job, but I can’t desert my mother.” On August 1, Gaynell began using Helen’s modest pension and Social Security check to pay the rent. “It’s really crunch time now,” she says.
In Texas, the crisis is magnified by the fact that until recently, the state had received little federal funding to house evacuees cut from the FEMA rolls. In late August, HUD allocated $428 million to the state in Community Development Block Grants; previously, the only significant federal funding to Texas had been the $74.5 million in CDBG funds the state received to help recover from Hurricane Rita. On August 1, HUD issued a waiver for the state’s use of the earlier funding, allowing the money to be used directly for the construction of housing and for covering 100 percent of down payments. But even if all of these funds are spent on housing, they will not begin to meet the needs of low-income families devastated by Rita. And there is no guarantee the more recent CDBG allocation will be used to help very low-income Katrina evacuees, whose numbers in Texas are staggering.
Over 540,000 Katrina and Rita relief applicants were living in Texas as of May, according to a FEMA estimate. Of these, 55,000 families, or roughly 160,000 individuals received rental assistance under FEMA’s emergency aid program, and are predominantly low- to very low-income. Many of these families are now living in intensely segregated, high-poverty areas. A survey conducted by the Houston city government in January revealed that roughly one-fourth of the city’s hurricane evacuees were living in FEMA-funded apartments in high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods on the city’s southwest side.
As in the case of Gaynell’s family, many evacuees are being arbitrarily denied long-term rental assistance. According to Heather Godwin, a New Orleans evacuee and attorney for Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid (TRLA), the most common reason why FEMA cuts off a family’s aid is “insufficient damage denial.” This is a claim that the family’s pre-disaster home is habitable. In May, after FEMA delivered 8,000 denial notices to families living in Houston, Mayor Bill White sent city building inspectors to New Orleans to investigate homes that FEMA said had insufficient damage. Of the 43 homes the inspectors visited, 30 were totally destroyed and uninhabitable. FEMA began reviewing these cases on an individual basis when confronted by the inspectors’ report, but has not changed its practices in other Texas cities.
“FEMA’s policy is in violation of the [federal] Stafford Act, which states that not only those with damaged homes, but also those who are displaced from homes are eligible for housing benefits,” says Godwin. “I have found that in many insufficient damage cases, evacuees were renters on second and third floors with apartments technically not damaged, but inaccessible, or renters whose landlords cleared out the undamaged unit and re-rented at a much higher rate.”
As evacuees are dropped from FEMA’s housing rolls, they are absorbed into the masses of Texas’ poor. Many of them are elderly or disabled, unable to get back on their feet and living in a constant state of uncertainty. A Zogby International poll of Houston evacuees in March found that those over the age of 65 are least likely to have a clear idea of where they will live in the immediate future.
Carol Young, a disabled evacuee, and her husband Michael, who has diabetes-related vision loss, have been labeled by FEMA as “undetermined” for 408 housing assistance. They plan to remain in Texas. They are currently kept afloat by rental assistance and Carol’s $579 Social Security check. If their rental assistance ends, the Social Security check won’t be enough to cover rent. “We just don’t want to be here and then after everything is all over, they cut everything off, push us to the side like we’re trash and forgotten about,” says Carol.
Debate Over Solutions
Shifting long-term housing responsibility from FEMA to HUD is also essential, according to housing advocates. “Here’s what we have learned,” says Paul Hilgers, director of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development in Austin. “FEMA is a short-term disaster relief program trying to respond to a long-term disaster. Eighteen months is as long as FEMA can think.” FEMA’s 408 program can only help eligible hurricane survivors until 18 months after the hurricane, or February 2007.
One of the few post-Katrina housing resources awarded to Texas by the federal government is $3.5 million in special tax credits, although the state has requested an additional $45 million. Tax credit apartments generally rent to families earning 60 percent of the area median income (AMI), or about $39,540 in Houston for a family of five. Yet the greatest demand for affordable rental housing in the region of Texas most affected by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina is among poor families, according to a report released by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs in February that evaluated housing financed by the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program.
The report found that there is a need for 13,970 more apartments affordable to very low-income families in the Houston metropolitan area, and a surplus of 2,685 apartments for families in the somewhat higher income group traditionally served by the tax credit program. The implications of this report are heightened by Houston’s poll of evacuees, which found that half have incomes that are less than $15,000 a year. Similarly, a separate poll of Austin evacuees released in March showed that 52 percent have incomes of 50 percent of the poverty rate or below. The Bogans live in a tax-credit financed apartment, but the denial letter Gaynell received from FEMA urged her to find lower-cost housing. “I’m like, lower cost housing?” she says. “I’m living in an apartment that is supposed to be low income. I think it’s pretty steep. It’s more than my mortgage payment was.”
Housing advocates are urging Congress to give states affected by the hurricane the flexibility to award additional tax credits (a 160 percent increase) to developers who agree to rent up to a third of their apartments to very low-income families. The states could then adjust the credits to produce apartments that families earning between $18,000 and $26,000 a year can afford. “Directing tax credits to the lowest income people is the only way they will be useful,” says Linda Couch, deputy director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “Otherwise, Gulf area states will see more empty tax credit units sitting around waiting for higher income people to occupy them. The real housing problems are at the extremely low-income level. If we’re not meeting that need, we’re not making progress in affordable housing in the Gulf region.”
The slow rebuilding process and the demolition of public housing in New Orleans has aggravated the crisis for evacuees. HUD announced in June that it plans to permanently demolish over 5,000 public housing apartments in New Orleans. “HUD’s demolition plans leave thousands of families with no hope of returning to New Orleans where rental housing is scarce and costly,” says Bill Quigley, professor of law at Loyola University in New Orleans. “In New Orleans, public housing was occupied by women, mostly working, their children as well as the elderly and disabled.”
The City of Houston’s January poll confirmed that many evacuees intend to permanently relocate to Texas. Fifty-eight percent of evacuees said they want to remain in Houston. Many have no choice. Take Michael and Carol Young. Hurricane Katrina leveled their home in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. Lost, along with their house and all their possessions, was Michael’s $5.25-an-hour job. Now they are 500 miles away in Austin, Michael’s part-time job is temporary, and they have nothing to return to in New Orleans. Michael’s vision has worsened in recent months and he can hardly fill out job applications. Like the Bogans, the Youngs’ isolation on the sprawling outskirts of Austin and their inability to secure steady employment has made it impossible for them to re-establish their lives. “I wish I could go back, but I know it’s impossible,” says Carol. “Many days and nights I sit up in this apartment and I have cried. My whole life has been rooted up and I have been put somewhere else, somewhere I didn’t ask to be at. You can mark my word; New Orleans is not coming back. It’s a hard pill to swallow. It’s like you’re walking but your feet ain’t going nowhere.”
On August 3, about 850 hurricane evacuees, social service providers, housing and disability advocates and policymakers from across the state, as well as members of Congress and Houston’s Mayor White met at the Texas Hurricane Housing Forum to develop solutions to the needs of low-income families like the Youngs and the Bogans. The consensus among participants was clear: without new, significant federal resources, Texas will face a housing crisis unlike any it has known before. Forum sponsors, including the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, Texas Appleseed, the Center for Public Policy Priorities and Texas ACORN, endorsed a letter to President Bush and Congress asking for 36,000 Section 8 vouchers, an additional $97.5 million in Low Income Housing Tax Credits and $822 million in CDBG funds to provide housing to hurricane victims.
Trying to Get By
The wide interstate that passes in front of Gaynell’s Austin apartment is not unlike the highway in Metairie, Louisiana, where the Bogans stood for three horrific days one year ago. When Gaynell steps outside her apartment, it is the steady hum of traffic from the highway that greets her instead of her familiar street in Gentilly. When she returned to that street recently to see what was left, she found it abandoned and littered with debris. Her neighborhood, she says, “is no longer a neighborhood at all.” Gaynell knows she cannot return; all she can do is wait to see if New Orleans miraculously recovers. “I wish I could say that by the end of the year I’ll be back in my home, but I don’t know…that bothers me a lot. It’s so very uncertain.”
Kristin Carlisle is development director/policy analyst for the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service.
Numerous groups, from grassroots organizations to national researchers have been following the progress, or lack thereof, in rebuilding the Gulf Coast region post-Katrina. These three reports offer both assessments and recommendations from a variety of perspectives.
One Year After Katrina: The State of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast