For the amount of money FEMA is spending on temporary mobile homes for flood victims, the federal agency could buy displaced residents modest houses in some parts of Baton Rouge.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is spending an estimated $129,200 for the purchase, transport and installation of each "manufactured housing unit" placed on the private property of a flood victim, according to a document provided to a Louisiana congressman. If the unit is placed in an already existing commercial park for mobile homes and travel trailers, then the cost increases to $149,000, because of the extra expense to lease the site pad. And if the mobile homes are placed in FEMA designated group sites, then the price can rise as high as $170,000. 

Two months after the south Louisiana floods killed 13 people and displaced more than 100,000…

Officials say the cost is infuriating. They note it's more than double the market rate and argue a more cost-effective program could potentially yield the faster delivery of the mobile homes, which are in high demand and short supply four months after the flood. Some families that have been approved for the trailers might have to wait another month and a half to get into a unit, which are homes that range from one to three bedrooms and can be as big as 980 square feet.

"It's idiotic. It's the fleecing of America, example No. 10,000," said U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, a Baton Rouge Republican. "You're spending more money, and it's taking longer. You're saying, 'We may be slow, but at least we're more expensive.'"

Local purveyors of mobile homes told The Advocate that the FEMA acquisition costs aren't at all close to market rates. FEMA estimated that it pays a unit rate of $62,500 for average cost of a mobile home, and another $23,000 for installation, and then $15,400 for maintenance. The average cost of freight, or transportation, is $5,000. FEMA then tacks on a 22 percent administrative overhead cost, which adds another $23,000.

Facing intermittent shortfalls in some kinds of manufactured housing units, FEMA has contrac…

The cost break down was shared with Graves by the federal agency. A national FEMA representative confirmed the per unit price, while Tito Hernandez, FEMA's federal coordinating officer, said the other expenses listed seemed accurate. 

Asked about FEMA's high acquisition cost compared to the market rate, Hernandez said the FEMA mobile homes meet strict safety standards set by the federal government.

"The FEMA unit is strong, it's a higher quality, it's more solid than many being sold commercially," he said.

Trouble viewing video below? Click here.

 

But mobile home dealers disputed that assertion. Interviews with dealers and price comparisons online found that single-wide mobile homes smaller than 1,000 square feet can be found easily for less than $35,000 per unit.

Troy Davis, whose been in the manufactured housing industry for more than 30 years in Hammond, said he is familiar with the model home that FEMA uses for victims, which he described as a low-end mobile home. He said he could sell that particular model for $37,900, which would include delivery, "skirting" to cover the area around the elevated home, and air conditioning hook ups. He said the additional sewer and water connections would cost another $600. At that price point, he said, he'd still make a profit as a retailer.

Federal Agency Management Agency trailer parks are coming to East Baton Rouge, and are expec…

Davis's total estimated cost for a mobile home would be less than one-third of FEMA's cost.

Davis said he was approached by "middle men" who acquire mobile homes to sell to FEMA, and was asked to sell his units for too low a price.

"They're not paying no more than $32,000 for the units, and then they're getting marked up by the middle men," he said.

Davis added that the true cost of the FEMA model is likely around $20,000, and could reasonably be sold in bulk to the government for about $25,000.

Robert Chambers, general manager of a national company Factory Expo Home Centers, agreed. He estimated the retail price of a FEMA mobile home to be between $15,000 and $22,000 — particularly because they can be bought in bulk. He estimated hauling should cost about $6 a mile for freight, and that installation would cost about $2,000.

When told that FEMA was spending upward of $129,000, Chambers said, "I can sell you a very big home for that."

As of Friday, FEMA had placed 2,616 people in FEMA mobile homes -- 2,409 of those were on their private property. The rest were in commercial trailer parks. There is one FEMA group site being developed which will house about 30 lots in Livingston.

There's a waiting list of about 2,700 people who are still waiting for FEMA homes, Hernandez said, adding that he hopes they will all be housed by the end of January.

Hernandez stressed that mobile homes are just one of a few different temporary housing options FEMA provides, which include rental assistance, hotel placement and the Shelter at Home program, which provides some repairs to flooded properties to allow people to live in their own houses while finishing the rebuilding work. He said the mobile homes program is the most expensive and cumbersome program because of the logistics of placing such a large structure on people's properties.

Since the beginning weeks after the flood in August, state and FEMA officials have stressed that the mobile homes are a "last resort" for flood survivors. Graves and other state and local emergency officials have complained for months about the slow pace of delivering them.

In Livingston Parish, Sheriff Jason Ard took matters into his own hands when FEMA took too long to respond to the housing needs of 25 deputies. Ard said he was afraid they would have to leave the parish, because many of deputies lost their homes in the flood and were still living in tents as recently as a month ago.

He said he used Sheriff's Office money to buy 25 mobile homes for his deputies, with the hope he will be reimbursed by FEMA. He said the homes he bought were $35,000 each, and at about 1,200 square feet each, they're larger than the FEMA models. The local vendor also promised to buy them back in a year for $28,000 each.

Ard said with the added expensive of buying land to create a mobile home site, the units cost about $100,000 each, which is still $50,000 to $70,000 less than FEMA's projected costs for group sites. Ard added that he'd initially identified a much less expensive lot, which was rejected by FEMA because it was in a flood zone.

Ard also said he was able to put together the entire group site for his employees, start to finish, in about 28 days, which is further infuriating to him because of FEMA's slow pace.

Hernandez said his number one priority is providing flood survivors with a safe place to stay as quickly as possible.

"I'm not thinking about the price," he said.

But the price tag of the mobile homes will catch up to the state, which will be on the hook for 10 percent of the cost of the disaster response. The federal government will cover the other 90 percent.

The most well known and widespread use of FEMA mobile homes before the flood was in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. During that time, more than 100,000 so-called Katrina trailers — typically much smaller travel trailers — were allocated to house flood victims across the Gulf Coast. But the units were cramped and later found to have traces of formaldehyde that set off a class action lawsuit over health concerns.

A 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office said that Katrina trailers cost between $75,000 and $84,000 each to purchase and install at a group site.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.