Janet Torres hasn't lived under the same roof as her two teenage children or her boyfriend since floodwater engulfed their two acres in Livingston Parish, swallowing up the family's mobile home.
Friends and family are helping out, but nobody has room to accommodate all of them. Torres' kids — a high school sophomore and junior — are each living with friends' families in Denham Springs, while she's staying with a friend in Prairieville and her boyfriend is living with his father in Clinton.
Torres didn't have flood insurance and needs to save to rebuild on her property. In the meantime, she was hoping to find a rental to reunite her family. But in the post-flood Baton Rouge area market, that's proved more difficult than she expected. The available places are just too expensive, she said.
"They've definitely price gouged since the flood," Torres said. "I'm not asking for a mansion. I just want to be with my kids. That's not too much to ask."
The number of people receiving Federal Emergency Management Agency rental assistance or in hotel rooms paid for by the agency has plummeted since the beginning of the historic floods last August, from a high of 13,977 to a recent total of about 3,600 households.
Flood victims still living in hotels and motels since August's floods are getting another re…
But that drop masks the ongoing struggles for many displaced families, as can be seen with FEMA's announcement last week that assistance for flood victims in hotels would be extended for another month. For many families with limited means, the tight rental market has posed a particular obstacle to rebuilding their lives.
Currently there is about a 3 to 4 percent vacancy rate in the region, said Craig Davenport, a multifamily real estate appraiser who studies apartment trends for the Greater Baton Rouge Board of Realtors. It usually hovers around 7 percent, he said.
The difficulty in finding a decent size rental has put a tremendous strain on Eric and Rebekah Chase's marriage these past few months. The couple, along with their three kids and two dogs, have practically been living on top of one another in a camper designed to sleep just two people.
The Chases initially thought they were lucky. The three-bedroom house they had been renting in Central was spared. But then in September, they discovered a severe mold infestation beneath their home. They left after a disagreement about the mold with their landlord.
Most of their personal belongings are now stuffed inside plastic bins, some of which are stacked outside the tiny camper they have parked inside the KOA Kampground in Denham Springs.
Eric Chase, a veteran of the U.S. Marines Corps and cabinet builder, says they're contemplating an out-of-state move because rental options are so limited in the region.
"I just don't want to deal with people anymore because they're so money hungry," he said. "You can't find anything that's going to fit all three kids and allows pets for under $1,400 a month! It's ridiculous!"
They acknowledge the tight living quarters is prompting difficult arguments. "It makes it hard when you're so cramped," Rebekah Chase said. "It's tough."
Maxwell Ciardullo, a spokesman for the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, says the floods' impact on the rental market also creates an environment more ripe for housing discrimination.
Ciardullo says his organization saw an uptick in the number of housing discrimination claims that were filed in the Baton Rouge area after the flood — something that also occurred in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina.
"Most fair housing complaints are around race, people with disabilities and whether or not folks have children," he said. "We saw a lot of those after Katrina where landlords said properties were adult-only, which is in violation of the Fair Housing Act."
The Louisiana Attorney General's Office would not provide details on the number of fair housing complaints filed since the August floods.
Baton Rouge government officials are trying to tear down as many blighted homes as possible …
Davenport, the rental market expert, said many apartment complexes that were severely damaged by the floods haven't reopened, with some showing no signs of rehabilitation work taking place anytime soon.
This lack of progress is particularly acute in north Baton Rouge, where rentals were typically more affordable for low-income families, he said.
When people do fix up their rentals, they often end up raising the rent, Davenport noted.
East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Councilwoman Erika Green, one of several council members whose district includes part of north Baton Rouge, says the rental shortage is hitting senior citizens in her area the hardest. Those elderly residents just don't want to relocate, she said.
"They're use to going five blocks, or certain distances, to get to places," she said. "Right now, they would have to move across town to find housing."
A lot of smaller landlords, people who rented out individual houses, for example, lack the means to rebuild, Green said, pointing to the significant number of for-sale signs she is now seeing in front of flooded properties.
"These homeowners don't have the ability to hurry up and put rental properties back online," she said.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Housing Authority reports that approximately 42 percent of the 753 families who were flooded out of Section 8-subsidized homes haven't found a place where they can re-use their voucher. Richard Murray, the head of the parish's Housing Authority, said 11 percent of the flood victims who used the Section 8 voucher program had to move out of the city to find new housing.
Davenport predicted the need for FEMA rental assistance won't dissipate until the region starts benefiting from the types of federally-funded programs that helped restore the New Orleans housing market post-Katrina.
Gov. John Bel Edward's Office of Community Development has announced that it will direct $100 million of the $1.65 billion in flood-recovery funds Congress has approved for Louisiana to tackle the rental shortage.
Office of Community Development Executive Director Pat Forbes says the state intends to roll out several programs geared toward helping renters. A February presentation about the plan to spend that money outlined programs that included $12.5 million in assistance to renters at risk of becoming homeless, as well as other efforts that would be more geared toward rehabbing damaged buildings. For example, the assistance for landlords would include a $30 million program to restore larger rental properties and $25 million in funding to help fix affordable units in smaller buildings.
But it will likely be spring before those funds begin to flow, Forbes said.
"We recognize there's a problem with the lack of affordable rent housing inventory," he said. "Rather than focusing on helping people pay rent, we want to increase the stock."
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