The federal government, which has already allocated an estimated $7.15 billion to pay for temporary and longer-term housing for families displaced by Hurricane Katrina, would have saved a “significant” amount of money if it had quickly acted to provide low-income displaced families with 12-month to 18-month vouchers to move into rental housing, according to a report by a public policy research organization.

In its report, “Housing Families Displaced by Katrina: A Review of the Federal Response to Date,” The Brookings Institution‘s Metropolitan Policy Program recommends “a more cost-effective and human approach to the remaining housing needs of families,” including the expansion of a Section 8 voucher program to help displaced families find longer-term housing solutions and a more streamlined use of trailer park communities to house construction workers and displaced families.

Months after Hurricane Katrina, an estimated 500,000 displaced families are living in rental housing or preparing to move into rental housing that is subsidized by the federal government, while an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 remain in temporary housing, according to the report. The Brookings Institution is a private, nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C.

“While no U.S. natural disaster has wrought such extensive damage as Hurricane Katrina, the past can still guide the federal government response in providing quick, cost-effective, and quality housing assistance to displaced families,” the report states. “For many families, the last 70 days have been a series of frustrations and uncertainties, moving from one short-term venue to another in search of more stable housing options and more long-term financial aid and security. And the ad-hoc nature and multiple components of housing aid have only added to the confusion. With approximately 600,000 displaced families, opportunity remains to improve the quality and cost-effectiveness of the federal housing response.”

Hurricane Katrina displaced more than 1 million Gulf Coast residents, the report states, and about half of the evacuees returned to their homes within days of the storm while up to 600,000 households remained in hotels, shelters, and other temporary housing a full month after the storm hit.

These temporary shelters have included trailers and mobile homes, Red Cross shelters, hotels and cruise ships.

An estimated $3 billion of the federal spending for housing displaced families was devoted to trailer and mobile home communities, according to the Brookings report, including the cost to build new trailers and mobile homes; to ship and transport the units; to rent land for trailer park communities; to extend and install water, sewer and other utilities; to maintain the homes and communities; and to shutdown the communities once they are no longer needed.

“Although trailer and mobile home communities represent 41 percent of the current allocation for displaced families, only 125,000 of the estimated 600,000 families will be housed in these communities,” the report states. “Meanwhile, only 19 percent of the 125,000 ordered trailers are currently in use. About 23,156 families are currently housed in those communities.”

The Red Cross estimated that the overall bill for its temporary shelters following Hurricane Katrina is about $513 million, according to the Brookings report. An estimated 53,000 people remain in hotels, the report also states, and the Red Cross estimates that it spent about $225 million to subsidize hotel rooms for displaced families. The Brookings report notes that the Red Cross will be “fully reimbursed” for the hotel room costs.

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency reportedly took over the administration of housing evacuees in hotel rooms from the Red Cross on Oct. 24, though there “was no data available on the amount of money FEMA has spent on hotel rooms,” at the time the report was published, on Nov. 11. FEMA has announced plans to end hotel subsidies by Dec. 1.

Also, the report states that about $236 million has been spent housing evacuees and emergency workers in cruise ships. “No data is available that speaks to the total number of families that have been housed in cruise ships, but approximately 2,881 cabins are currently occupied,” the Brookings report states.

At least three federal programs are now being used to support longer-term housing options for displaced families, the report states, including FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program, federally owned or rented housing, and vouchers through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development‘s Katrina Disaster Housing Assistance Program.

The report recommends that the Katrina Disaster Housing Assistance Program and FEMA-subsidized apartment program should be replaced “with a true Section 8 voucher program,” and “HUD needs to be made a central partner in helping these families find longer-term housing.” Also, the report recommends that “the number of trailers contracted to be built should be revisited and dramatically cut back” and the use of trailers should be phased out once new construction begins in New Orleans and surrounding areas.

Also, “rather than build large trailer parks on greenfields in remote locations, these trailers should instead be placed near homeowners’ properties or on vacant lots in cities. Using trailers in this more targeted manner will ensure that such housing will more directly meet the needs of families and businesses while saving taxpayer dollars.”

***

Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to glenn@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 137.

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