Emily Pipes stepped around the lumber and half-finished construction materials in her Hoyt Drive home off O'Neal Lane, looking at all that's left to be done in the three weeks before her family needs to be out of their FEMA manufactured housing unit — unless they want to start paying rent.
"Our kitchen still needs to be done and our bathrooms," Pipes, 21, said Wednesday. "There's a lot to be done."
Louisiana politicians are standing shoulder-to-shoulder in calling on the Federal Emergency Management Agency not to impose rent on the thousands of people living in manufactured housing units who are still recovering from the 2016 flood, even a year and a half later. FEMA has hinted that some lower-income households may qualify for reduced rates, but they would be assessed on an individual basis.
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There are still 1,930 MHUs deployed in Louisiana from the flood. More than half are in East Baton Rouge, while Livingston Parish accounts for 594, and another 215 are in Ascension. FEMA has announced it will begin collecting rent on March 1 and it plans to remove the units altogether in mid-May.
On Wednesday evening, the East Baton Rouge Metro Council unanimously signed off on a resolution opposing rent on MHUs. The language, authored by the mayor's office, says it is "unfathomable" that the federal government is preparing to charge rent.
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At the council meeting, assistant chief administrative officer Rowdy Gaudet said the city-parish continues to get calls from worried constituents who "don't need any additional burdens." The resolution is meant to align the city-parish with the governor's office, which has also appealed FEMA's decision to charge rent.
Congressman Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, has also vigorously objected. It looks like FEMA just threw a dart at a calendar without considering the reality on the ground, he said in a recent interview.
"While we agree that FEMA needs to set deadline on MHUs and we should be doing all we can to help move our flood victims from these trailer units into their rebuilt homes, the March 1st date is arbitrary, ignores recovery metrics and appears to lack any coordination with recovery efforts underway," he wrote to FEMA administrator Brock Long earlier this month.
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Only a fraction of the federal funds committed to recovery have been disbursed so far, and FEMA — at a minimum — should adjust its schedule to reflect the distribution of Restore Louisiana money, Graves wrote.
FEMA has said it will continue trying to work with Louisiana authorities.
"FEMA and the state are in continuing discussions regarding the possibility of a rent waiver for occupants of Manufactured Housing Units," FEMA spokeswoman Sharon Karr wrote in a Wednesday statement to The Advocate.
Pipes, who lives with her elderly aunt and cousin, said paying rent on their FEMA mobile home, is not a feasible option for them.
Even without the burden of rent from FEMA, Pipes said, she's starting to look for a second job to help with home costs and construction. However, she has found that without a vehicle — a purchase that has been on hold since the flood — her employment prospects are limited. She currently works at Rice & Roux, located across O'Neal Lane from her subdivision, close enough to walk.
"I've always wanted to be in one of those high-end restaurants," said the culinary school graduate, "but I can only take what I can get right now."
Karr indicated that FEMA may offer relief on a case-by-case basis. State authorities have prepared for residents to be charged between $789 per month for a one-bedroom unit to $1,155 for a three-bedroom unit, but Karr said the agency may offer reductions.
Residents in a manufactured home may seek a reduced rate by faxing (225) 379-3430 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Occupants may be asked to provide pay stubs or income information, mortgage payments or rental agreements, property tax bills, insurance policy information and utility invoices.
"Specific documentation will be required to verify income and expenses and occupants must explain, in writing, why they believe they cannot pay the amount of rent charged," Karr wrote.
"FEMA continues to work with individual households to review their unique situations."
Many people still in MHUs are on their way to being able to move back in to their permanent homes, but there are still hurdles they have to clear.
Alice Owens spent Wednesday beginning to pack up her belongings from her FEMA mobile home, trying to get back into her mostly-completed Centurion Avenue home Wednesday afternoon.
"I'm just glad to know I'm at the point where I can move out," Owens, 68, said. "I know that I could not afford to pay the fee that they wanted us to pay."
She said if she could afford to pay a rent as high as FEMA will be asking come March, she would never have spent the last year in a government-funded mobile home. But knowing rent was looming did expedite her and her husband's progress on their home — out of necessity.
"I don't want anybody knocking on the door saying we're evicted," Owens said. "It played a big factor because we were rushing, trying to get money to finish up."
She said it would have helped speed things up if the majority of their Restore Louisiana funding had come in, but they are still waiting.
Chenelle Doise, who's been living in a FEMA mobile home in her mother's front yard on Caesar Avenue since November 2016, said she understands that the federal government needs to move people along.
"It pushes you to go to the next phase," Doise, 40, said. She said they will be moving in with her mother-in-law until her family's new home is completed.
"We're not going to pay $800 or whatever the amount was to stay here when our house is almost done," Doise said. "You do what you've got to do. I feel sorry for the people who don't have family. … But we're not going to do that."