Hurricane Housing Update

Federal housing assistance 'recertification' deadline for hurricane evacuees looms for both landlords and their tenants

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has begun mailing out notices to thousands of landlords across the state, informing them that financial assistance for hurricane evacuees living in their rental properties will end at the end of October because the tenants haven't successfully "recertified" for the agency's Individual Assistance housing program. As of early August, about 24,700 evacuee families in Texas (about 21,000 of them in Houston) hadn't submitted the paperwork necessary to be eligible for the program until its current end date, Feb. 28. About 1,066 of these families live in Austin, said FEMA spokesman Don Jacks.

Oct. 31 is the deadline for all evacuees who transferred from FEMA's emergency sheltering housing program to its Individual Assistance program to submit their paperwork for recertification, but FEMA is giving evacuees 40 days advance notice. "It's urgent for families to contact FEMA and get recertified, and we're asking the landlords to help us communicate the importance of this process to their tenants," said E.C. "Butch" Smith, director of FEMA's Texas Transitional Recovery Office in Austin, in a press release.

Meanwhile, more than 90 organizations and individuals have signed onto a "five-point plan for long-term housing" (www.texashousing.org/hhforum/
Conference/5%20point%20plan.html
), which was sent to President Bush, HUD Secretary Alfonso Jackson, and members of Congress shortly after an Aug. 3 forum in Houston on housing for hurricane survivors. Among other things, the letter urges the federal government to reclassify "Katrina evacuees in Texas as refugees" and to transfer "them to an 18-month resettlement program."

One of the letter's authors is John Henneberger. As co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, an Austin-based affordable-housing advocacy organization, he went with a group to Washington a couple of weeks ago to meet with members of Congress about long-term housing for evacuees. He didn't return very optimistic about the push for refugee status and a resettlement program, he said, because a strong political vehicle for making this happen has yet to have been created. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., has filed a bill for getting extended housing support for evacuees, primarily through Section 8 vouchers, and Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, filed a companion bill in the House, but only bipartisan legislation has a good chance of making it through Congress, Henneberger said.

With slightly more optimism, he also mentioned a series of FEMA reforms and revisions to the federal Stafford Act (which lays out the types of assistance the federal government is obligated to provide in emergencies) that House and Senate authorizers approved last Friday, in a bipartisan bill filed by Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine. One revision says FEMA should provide housing assistance to major disaster survivors for 18 months. But the legislation doesn't apply retroactively to Katrina and Rita evacuees, Henneberger said. "The bill has been sent to Appropriators, who have indicated they will include it on the final Homeland Security Appropriations bill to come out of Conference Committee, possibly by the end of this week," he said in an e-mail. "In the meantime, Secretary [Michael] Chertoff has been lobbying hill staffers in recent days, saying that the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA oppose any changes to the Stafford Act. Homeland Security appropriations staff will now go through the bill and remove any pieces they find objectionable."

FEMA's Jacks noted that since Aug. 1, an estimated 6,300 evacuee families in Texas have submitted recertification applications. As of press time, however, the agency didn't know how many of those applications had been approved. He added that evacuees who miss the Oct. 31 recertification deadline and lose their assistance aren't barred from trying to get readmitted to the Individual Assistance program.

After multiple extensions, FEMA ended its emergency housing program at the end of August. About 590 families in Austin who were getting emergency assistance and who didn't qualify for individual assistance lost their housing aid at that point. Amy Elder, executive director of Texas Interagency/Interfaith Disaster Response (www.tidr.org), a coalition of nonprofits, churches, and social-service groups formed in Katrina's aftermath, said a lot of these evacuees are living with family, friends, and acquaintances – at least for now. "They're doing what they can to stay off the street," Elder said. "We're not seeing the rapid increase of families on the streets of Austin, but we're holding our breath [and] wondering when it's going to hit."


Individual Assistance program recertification requires documentation of the following:

Predisaster mortgage or rent payments

Current and predisaster income

Efforts to reestablish income (if applicable)

A plan describing how an evacuee will provide for his or her own housing in the future

Individual Assistance program rent payment receipts (only applies to evacuees having FEMA assistance sent directly to them)

Source: FEMA


Evacuees wanting to find out their recertification status can call 800/621-FEMA (3362), or 800/462-7585 for the speech and hearing impaired.

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