As south Louisiana residents struggle to recover from August's epic flood, the challenges of rebuilding will be especially hard in poorer neighborhoods. That's why state and local leaders should heed the lessons of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, when a lagging rebound among low-income residents frustrated New Orleans’ broader recovery.
The rebirth of New Orleans is a miracle, celebrated across America. But a handful of miscalculations in the Road Home program continue to vex the city, which struggles with a shortage of affordable housing and never fully regained its population, leaving East Baton Rouge as Louisiana’s largest parish.
The flood of 2016, the largest American natural disaster since Superstorm Sandy, was an equal-opportunity catastrophe, as richer and poorer neighborhoods suffered alike. But local leaders in Baton Rouge worry that lower-income residents won't have the resources to make repairs or to rent a short-term home while they wrangle with their insurance companies or wait for word on federal aid that can help them rebuild.
The Rev. Chris Andrews, executive director of Rebuilding Together Baton Rouge, is concerned some people may receive help to make the minimal repairs allowed under the Shelter at Home program — which includes basic items like exterior doors, a toilet and a mini-fridge — but be unable to do more.
"They're beginning to see that (Federal Emergency Management Agency payouts are) not enough money to fix their houses," added Mid City Redevelopment Alliance Executive Director Samuel Sanders. "The heartbreaking part for me ... is seeing the number of individuals still living in these homes. That's just hard to wrap my arms around."
Classes of victims are emerging. Renters made homeless by the flood are unlikely to return any time soon, as landlords navigate the path toward rebuilding and rents have increased in response to the acute housing shortage. Other poor residents own their homes outright but were already behind in their repairs before the water rose. A foot of water inside those delapidated homes did much more catastrophic damage than a foot in newer construction. In many cases, mortgages that required flood insurance had long been paid off, so many owners -- without regard to income, probably -- let their coverage lapse.
Louisiana, which won $500 million from Congress last month, faces crucial decisions in setting up a homeowner aid program. The state cannot repeat the mistakes of the Road Home, which left many of New Orleans’ poorer neighborhoods with a mixture of tidy, rebuilt homes and blighted , abandoned housing.
After Katrina, said demographer Allison Plyer, head of the Data Center in New Orleans, money first went to owner-occupied housing, meaning rental units were slower to bounce back. The U.S. Department of Justice eventually filed suit against the state, saying aid to rental properties was unreasonably blocked, and the state agreed in 2014 to allow more affordable-housing funding in the city.
Another problem was that the Road Home compensated affected homeowners based on property values, not replacement costs, which often left homeowners in poor neighborhooods without the money they needed to rebuild.
For the second time in this young century, Louisiana will be crafting a program to provide federal aid to residents upended by a cruel flood. The rebirth of New Orleans is testament to the hard work of our state’s leaders and the generousity of the American people. In rebuilding the Baton Rouge area, we can do even better.
Cross the threshold of the house on Ritterman Avenue and the floor sags underfoot. With the …