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FILE PHOTO OF FEMA trailers for flood recovery set up in a field between Airline Highway and Victoria Drive, just off of Greenwell Springs Road, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. They're near the site of the now-demolished Bellemont Hotel.

ADVOCATE STAFF PHOTO BY TRAVIS SPRADLING

DENHAM SPRINGS — Even with the help of a program designed to help flooded-out renters find new homes, some in Livingston Parish say they just can't find affordable apartments, houses or trailers.

Kayla Atkinson, executive director of Rebuild Livingston, the nonprofit group providing case management for renters, said a shortage of low-cost housing in the parish, worsened by the flood, has made it difficult to find places people can move into.

Rapid Rehousing is a $16 million program paid for with federal dollars and overseen by the Louisiana Housing Authority. It is designed to help flooded renters still living in Federal Emergency Management Agency's manufactured housing units or temporary apartments get into permanent homes before an impending deadline.

Funded by the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant program, people can use the coupons to defray the cost of rent. Participants must pay a minimum of 30 percent of their gross income in rent, and the program covers the rest.

A further stipulation is applicants must find a unit within 60 days. And they must regularly meet with case managers like Atkinson. Assistance is available for a maximum of one year and is slowly reduced as people ideally learn to budget for their new homes. 

The program is currently full and has a waiting list for new applicants, said Nicole Sweazy, executive director of the Louisiana Housing Authority. The high number of applicants speaks to the lack of affordable housing statewide, she said, noting that she expects requests to increase as the FEMA trailer deadline approaches.

FEMA statistics show that 180 renter households as of Monday are still in agency housing. While the agency has given people living in trailers until Feb. 14 to leave or agree to pay rent, FEMA officials say that those who can't afford the fair market rent for the units can appeal, in writing, and ask for a reduction in rates based on their incomes. 

Atkinson said she has been able to find apartments for 15 of the 42 people in Livingston Parish who signed up for the program in November and December.

The problem for many still not housed, she said, is they cannot afford anything on the market in the parish because the housing they lived in pre-flood is not repaired or has been repaired and rented at a higher rate. Some of those people left in FEMA housing are living on fixed incomes that are less than a market rent in the parish, she said.

Atkinson said she is left asking whether she ought to put people in rental homes they could afford only for the year the federal vouchers will be in place, potentially leaving them homeless in the future. 

"Do I put them in a place that I know they cannot afford but because they are getting some help from rapid rehousing that maybe we can carry them for a year? And then what do they do at the end of the year?" she said. "And they don't have a clear answer for that, because rapid rehousing is not an affordable housing solution."

Sweazy said 653 people across the state have gotten vouchers since the August 2016 flood as of Jan. 26. Of those, 417 have leased apartments, mobile homes or houses.  

She said what is going on in Livingston is not unique in terms of the lack of affordable housing options. The question Atkinson is asking about how to handle people who cannot afford certain rents over the longterm is also being asked by the prospective renters, she said.

Sweazy said it might be better for people to move into places they cannot afford on their own. Going forward, tenants may be able to work with their case managers to develop plans to pay for their apartments after the vouchers end, she said. Also, the Louisiana Housing Corporation is administering grants to build more affordable housing, which may be built by then.

"The program might give them the opportunity to save a little bit, so they can take on full rent or move if they find a more affordable apartment," she said. "It’s not a permanent solution to people's problems, unfortunately."

Rents in the Baton Rouge area have been on the rise, according to fair market rents calculated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Fair market monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the Baton Rouge area jumped from $728 to $789 from fiscal year 2016 to 2018, according to HUD. The price for a two bedroom is up from $842 to $906.

"The harsh reality for some people is they might need to consider relocating out of the area they were living in before the flood in search of some more affordable housing options," Sweazy said. 

Kamie Miller, 29, is participating in the program, with the hopes she can find a place to live with her three young children. Her Denham Springs rental house flooded in August 2016, and the landlord has yet to fix it, she said. She is living now in one of FEMA's mobile homes.

Miller, who works as a bartender, said she's been hunting around Craigslist and Zillow, as well as calling numbers she sees on "For Rent" signs around town. 

"It seems like as soon as I find something, it's rented out," she said. "At this point I'll have to settle for anything just to get a place of my own."

Atkinson has been helping her find apartments and provided her Wednesday with a listing and a map of how to get there. 

As part of her job, Atkinson said even after connecting clients with a new rental, she needs to work with them over the next several months to figure a way to pay for the apartment themselves, which could include encouraging people to take extra hours at work or showing them how to budget. 

The organization she heads, Rebuild Livingston, is a long-term recovery nonprofit founded after the August 2016 that also connects homeowners with volunteers and donors who can help them finish repairs. 

Atkinson said some landlords have been hesitant to work with the program, since it means some added hoops and two checks — one from the government and one from the renter — to deal with.

One landlord working with the program is Gene Delozier, who owns dozens of houses and mobile homes around Livingston Parish. 

Delozier said the program has been good to work with so far, and he likes the idea of assistance that helps people to help themselves.

"If you transition people into where they’re on their own everybody is better off," he said.

Follow Caroline Grueskin on Twitter, @cgrueskin.