http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/27/us/27vouchers.htmlEvacuees Find Housing Grants Will End Soon
By SHAILA DEWAN
HOUSTON, April 21 ? Thousands of hurricane evacuees who counted on a year of free housing and utilities are being told by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that they are no longer eligible for such help and must either pay the rent themselves or leave.
Of about 55,000 families who were given long-term housing vouchers, nearly a third are receiving notices that they no longer qualify, FEMA officials said. For the rest, benefits are also being cut: they will have to sign new leases, pay their own gas and electric bills and requalify for rental assistance every three months.
The process has been marked by sharp disagreements between the agency and local officials, and conflicting information given to evacuees about their futures. Although agency officials say they never promised a full year of free housing, many local officials around the country say yearlong vouchers were exactly what FEMA agreed to provide.
To make matters worse, advocates and local officials say, many evacuees either do not know why they have been found ineligible or have been given spurious reasons. Many notices do not even give a deadline, saying only, "You will not be asked to leave before April 30."
"We believe that many of the people who received notice that they're ineligible are eligible," said Mayor Bill White of Houston, where more than 9,000 of the 35,000 families on vouchers have been determined to be unqualified, raising fears of mass homelessness.
Agency officials say fairness and the law prevent them from leaving the voucher system in place. The programs were hurriedly set up by state and local governments under FEMA guidelines for emergency housing, which is available to virtually anyone from a disaster-stricken area but is not intended to be used for extended periods.
Now, the agency is converting the families to its more traditional, and stricter, long-term housing program, the individual assistance program. Many people who qualified for emergency housing do not meet the requirements for long-term assistance, and the agency says it cannot ask taxpayers to continue to bankroll those families, although an agency spokesman, Aaron Walker, was unable to provide an estimate of how much money would be saved.
Mr. Garrett said the program was not fair to families who did not get vouchers, but instead went directly from shelters or hotels into the stricter program, under which they receive rent money every three months. The payments count against the total each family can legally receive from FEMA, $26,200, while rent and utilities under the voucher program do not. (FEMA trailers do not count either, agency officials said, because they are not as comfortable as apartments.)
The emergency housing program covers utilities, but the individual assistance program will not, unless Congress approves a request from President Bush to change the regulations.
The movement away from long-term vouchers has created widespread confusion among evacuees. A disabled evacuee in Little Rock said that when she called FEMA to ask why her rent was no longer being paid she was informed, erroneously, that she had never had a voucher. In Memphis, where there are 1,500 families on vouchers, FEMA initially asked those running the program to reclaim the furniture and basic kitchen items issued to evacuees, backing down after strenuous objections, said Susan Adams, the executive director of the Memphis and Shelby County Community Services Agency.
"It feels like a total lack of compassion," Ms. Adams said. "A total lack of humanity."
FEMA has no record of the furniture request, a spokesman for the agency said.
In interviews with more a dozen evacuees, some said they had been told they were ineligible because their home in New Orleans had not suffered enough damage, or they had insurance covering living expenses, or their paperwork lacked a signature, or they had not appeared in person for an inspection of their damaged home. FEMA recently agreed to review its findings for mistakes.
Mr. Garrett emphasized that evacuees could appeal any decision. But according to written guidelines, the agency will not continue to pay rent while a case is on appeal.
FEMA itself has difficulty explaining the ineligibility findings. The agency told Houston officials that about 1,200 of 8,500 families had insufficient damage to their homes and that 1,600 were in a category called "ineligible ? other." Some 1,050 were denied on appeal, but the original reason for the denial was not given. More than 2,300 were described as being eligible only for an initial $2,000, with no further explanation.
Some evacuees said they had planned their lives around the security of the 12-month voucher. Erica Stevens, 26, said the promise of housing had drawn her and her three children to Houston after Hurricane Rita destroyed her home in Beaumont, Tex. She did not receive much other assistance, she said, because her landlord filed a FEMA claim on the house before she did, making her ineligible.
Karen Douglas, an evacuee living with two sons in a pleasant house in a Houston suburb, said that amid enrolling the elder son in school, battling insurance adjusters and looking for a job, she had managed to put the insurance proceeds from her destroyed house into investments that would mature in November, when her voucher was to expire. "It's stressful, but I thought I had it together," she said.
Then, on April 15, Ms. Douglas too got a letter. She would like to appeal but does not know why she was found ineligible. The letter says only that she had been previously notified of the reason. "I was expecting FEMA to honor the agreement," she said. "I wasn't expecting them to go midstream and pull the rug out from underneath us."
Sorry for the long post, but there was lots of pertinent info in there.
I don't know enough about how/why the programs were initially instituted to say whether they were proper in the first place, but going and backing out on the deal looking like a sly devil sonbitch in the process just isn't right. :thumbsdown: