The head of the state’s Road Home Program promised Wednesday to find a way to fund an initiative that would put more skilled case managers on the ground in New Orleans to help residents navigate the complex and much-maligned disaster grant program.
Pat Forbes, who administers the federally funded Road Home program as executive director of the state’s Office of Community Development, said he would support using $500,000 in Community Development Block Grant money to provide one-on-one assistance to homeowners whose cases are still outstanding.
“We are willing to invest in anything that’s going to bring people into the program,” Forbes said. “It’s the only way we can get people compliant, or finished or closed-out.”
The request for additional case managers came from housing advocates who appeared before the New Orleans City Council’s Community Development Committee to discuss ongoing issues with the Road Home Program, which has been plagued by problems from its outset.
The most recent criticism came after the program mailed out thousands of letters demanding repayment of Road Home grants. Forbes said the letters were sent to homeowners who were found not to be in compliance with the program’s guidelines because their files were missing one or more documents.
Andreanecia Morris, who chairs the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance, said eliminating the backlog of noncompliant homeowners requires creating a “boiler room” where those homeowners can meet with people who are adept at getting through the Road Home process and who will advocate on their behalf.
“It is apparent that the needs are complex and unique for each person,” Morris said. “If they have their own case manager, someone who is helping them navigate not only the rules of the nonprofit they’re working with, but also the Road Home, we think we can get a lot more people to be successful.”
The Road Home has a contractor assigned to answering questions, but homeowners have lost faith in the state program, Morris said, and that creates a persistent backlog of cases that never get resolved and homeowners who feel abandoned.
“If homeowners have someone to advocate for them, they may feel more willing to trust and share information with them,” Morris said. And that person “can be creative and thoughtful and work with the state to try and find a solution for that individual homeowner.”
Nonprofits, neighborhood organizations and other grass-roots efforts have been doing similar advocacy work for homeowners ever since the state rolled out the Road Home program a few months after Hurricane Katrina.
The initiative Morris proposed would bring them all together in one program that would be funded by the state at $500,000 for one year. She estimated it would help about 1,000 homeowners get the “handholding, coaching and encouragement” they need to close out their Road Home cases.
Forbes said he would “absolutely” support such an initiative and funding request, but he said he needs time to meet with the council and other stakeholders to “figure out how the mechanics of that would work.”
Those details could be worked out in two months, he said.
In addition to the introduction of more and better-skilled case managers, remediating the Road Home program also should involve a policy change about what is considered acceptable documentation, said Monika Gerhart, a senior policy analyst for the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. Gerhart said that of the nearly 30,000 homeowners whom Road Home has deemed noncompliant, only about 1,500 have been able to “successfully navigate the Road Home’s documentation threshold.”
As an example of burdensome documentation requests, Gerhart said a client she represents who lives in a home with contaminated drywall provided documentation to the Road Home proving that she was a party to litigation against the drywall company. The Road Home, in response, requested that the client submit a drywall inspection report.
In other matters, the council committee approved a new blight-reduction effort. The “Mow to Own” ordinance would allow for the sale of tax-adjudicated properties directly to adjoining property owners who have maintained the properties for at least one year. A public auction would not be required.
The administration did not make a presentation on the ordinance Wednesday. Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell said the Mayor’s Office is still figuring out how the program would be implemented. The matter will go before the full council in August, Cantrell said.