Cunnighman, Sweazy

Chief Executive Officer Keith Cunningham and Chief Operating Officer Bradley Sweazy of the Louisiana Housing Corporation discuss the post-flood housing rehabilitation program for renters during Friday's meeting Restore Louisiana Task Force at Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales.

John Dupont | The News

GONZALES – The delay in federal flood relief funds has stalled the startup of a state-implemented program to help displaced flood survivors with rental assistance and costs of housing repairs.

Two administrators from the Louisiana Housing Corporation unveiled the program during the monthly meeting of the Restore Louisiana Task Force meeting Friday, March 17 at Lamar-Dixon Expo Center.

The state hoped to have the federal line of credit open by March, but the money may not become available until April, said Julie Baxter Payer, Deputy Chief of Staff for Gov. John Bel Edwards.

The ball is now in the federal government’s court, according to Payer.

“We’ve done everything to stay ahead of our federal deadlines, but the way the federal government gets disaster funds to our state has been very problematic,” she said. “All we can do from our side on behalf of Louisiana and the citizens of the parishes and state is that every time it comes to our part of the process, we must make sure we anticipate any questions or delays and that we answer those issues ahead of time.

“That’s our commitment, and on our part we commit to absolutely minimize delays for the homeowners,” Payer said.

The framework is in place to begin the application process, but additional personnel is needed to implement the process, said Pat Forbes, Director of the Governor’s Office of Community Development.

The state hopes to get the ball rolling on the process in mid-April to prevent any delay in the application review phase, he said.

The program startup comes as rental stress has spiked from 19 percent to 44 percent since the March and August floods, LHC Chief Executive Officer Keith Cunningham said.

“One of our strategies has been to create more housing and a pattern for a solution to the housing crisis,” he said. “It’s less costly to address these situations than to let people become homeless.”

Seniors ages 62 and up comprise a large portion of the renters – 56 percent of whom fall into the low income category. Thirty percent of the senior renters fall below poverty level.

The program should move into full gear once the federal government releases the $438 million in the first round of Housing and Urban Development funds Congress approved in September.

It targets two areas for rehabilitation: rental solutions, along with restoration and infill programs.

The Rental Solution program allocates $130 million in rental assistance to Louisiana families. It funnels $50 million to the multifamily restoration program and $40 million to the rental repair and infill program, along with $20 million to the “piggyback” program, which restores rental housing. The program also kicks in $15 million for rapid re-housing and $5 million for permanent housing solutions.

Under the program, technical assistance programs would begin and spring. The program announcement guidelines would start in summer and award announcement would kick off in mid-summer, which lead to a start on construction in autumn.

Renters comprise 35 percent of the households across the state. In that figure, a deficit exists in the affordable and available rental units to residents in extremely low income households, many of whom faced significant housing cost burdens prior to the floods.

In the meantime, anger has replaced grief and shock in the minds of flood victims frustrated over what they consider lackluster response from FEMA.

Ann Gibbons, whose home on Millerville Road in Baton Rouge took in floodwater, appealed three times to FEMA for additional help on her home, but her requests fell on deaf ears.

She followed the FEMA public advisories to provide pictures of her home in the aftermath of the flood, but it did not help.

“They did not want to see anything,” said Gibbons, 68. “They covered sheet rock for my kitchen, but did not take care of anything else.”

She filed three appeals with FEMA, but came up short each attempt.

“They told me I couldn’t file any more appeals because they had given me the final denial,” Gibbons said. “I was totally shocked by the way FEMA treated me.”

Tommy Underwood, who served five years in Vietnam, also voiced disgust at the federal response.

“When is this country going to open its eyes and its hearts” he asked. “God blessed us with a country of great compassion – and we’re losing it slowly.”

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