Cross the threshold of the house on Ritterman Avenue and the floor sags underfoot. With the home stripped to its shell, it's possible to peer at the dirt between wooden slats.
Chris Andrews pointed at a stud with his toe, bumping it and causing a bit to flake off and disintegrate. Termite damage, the nonprofit leader noted.
Debris remained at the curbs, in heaps throughout the neighborhood. Leaning against the house were just a few things that may be salvageable — a metal headboard, a pair of decorative mirrors, a partially disassembled treadle sewing machine.
Andrews next drove a mile down the road to another north Baton Rouge house his crews helped gut — it’s two doors down from a home where the American flag is flying upside-down in distress. The whole area faces exceptional rebuilding challenges, he noted.
"At one time, this was a very solid working-class neighborhood," he said.
While many of the East Baton Rouge Parish residents who flooded lived in relatively affluent suburban neighborhoods, low-income areas washed out, too.
Those poorer residents may be in for a rebuild that is slower, tougher and more bound in red tape than the wealthier folks across town.
Many may never come back home.
Which will run out first — time or money? Academics and local leaders 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.
Religious, civic and other volunteer groups in Baton Rouge have helped people gut their houses but generally aren't equipped to rebuild entire neighborhoods. There is talk of working with organizations like Habitat for Humanity to help get neighborhoods back into livable conditions. But as LSU economics professor Stephen Barnes noted: "We can't rebuild all of it at once."
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Andrews, the executive director of Rebuilding Together Baton Rouge, is worried 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 perform any substantial renovations.
"They're beginning to see that (Federal Emergency Management Agency payouts are) not enough money to fix their houses," said 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."
To begin understanding the impending challenges, it is helpful to think of low-income neighborhoods as two communities, each with its own set of problems, said Carlos Martín, a researcher at the Urban Institute who studies housing and community policies. First, there are the renters who were made homeless by the flood and are unlikely to return any time soon while their landlords navigate the path toward rebuilding.
Then there are the folks who own their homes outright — including houses that have been in families for generations. Many of those old homes are behind on their repairs, and a foot of water inside did much more catastrophic damage than a foot in newer construction. Mortgages that required flood insurance have long been paid off, so many owners let their coverage lapse. They'll need government assistance to start rebuilding or start over, but first they'll have to jump through legal hoops just to prove who owns the property.
Several property owners already have approached the local government to see how much money they can get by selling their land to the Redevelopment Authority. The head of the agency said it's too early to tell what the post-flood landscape will look like — though a few years ago, the city-parish commissioned plans for five neighborhoods in north Baton Rouge in need of assistance.
These plans spelled out designs for better roads, incentives for minority-owned businesses, access to mixed-income housing and even independent living facilities for the elderly. Without much money for implementation, however, the plans largely have stalled, though they could be resurrected post-flood.
All told, the city-parish estimates that 4,645 residential structures flooded in the lowest-income U.S. census tracts — those where median household income is less than half the parish median in 2010, or about $22,000.
At least 8,286 more flooded in "moderate" income neighborhoods, where median household income is less than approximately $36,000 annually.
While many of the homes were in high-risk flood zones, nonprofit leaders familiar with the neighborhoods believe many of the houses were paid off, which could mean they are uninsured. Although banks require mortgage holders to buy flood insurance, once the property is owned outright, owners can drop coverage.
After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans officials saw scores of households without insurance in the Lower 9th Ward, where many homes were passed down between generations of a family, said University of New Orleans planning and urban studies professor Marla Nelson.
"When your budget gets tight, that's the first thing to go," she said.
Most people the Redevelopment Alliance has encountered in Baton Rouge weren't policyholders.
"At this point, 95 percent of the houses that we've stepped in ... did not have flood insurance," Sanders said.
In East Baton Rouge, half the homes inundated in the recent storms aren't in areas where flo…
That means people will have to rely on federal assistance or rebuild on their own. Gov. John Bel Edwards is asking the federal government to come up with $2.6 billion, including for housing assistance, but it's unclear if or when all of that help might materialize. So far, Congress has included $500 million in one spending bill approved last week.
Some homes likely will have to be elevated or demolished and built anew, an especially expensive process. The elevation standards will apply to homes in high-risk zones that were 50 percent damaged and are not at least 1 foot above the 100-year flood level.
Between flood and full recovery lie innumerable hurdles. Some are intuitive: demolition, permits, applications, contracts, construction. Others can be unforeseen headaches, like property titles.
The Center for Planning Excellence, a nonprofit planning organization, frequently works with people who live in old, multigenerational homes in Baton Rouge.
"It was astounding the percentage of buildings that did not have clear title," said CEO Elizabeth "Boo" Thomas.
Often, when an older family member dies, a relative moves into the house without an official legal succession document in place. However, that paperwork is essential if a family wants to apply for FEMA assistance, Thomas said. Even if there aren't any complications, it could cost $1,200 to hire a lawyer to set the record straight, she continued.
Conditions also are difficult for the flooded people who rent, instead of owning their homes.
"They're in a more desperate position," said Martín, the Urban Institute researcher.
Most don't have renters insurance to cover their flooded possessions, and even if they do, the policy might cover theft but not flood, he continued.
After Katrina, rental rates in dry areas went up 70 percent, and although the state has an anti-price gouging law, "it's really poorly enforced," Martín said.
It's not uncommon for rental units to make up half or more of the housing units in the census blocks in low-income flooded areas.
Renters tend not to get the same level of assistance, even when more federal money becomes available.
One issue is that the United States has a strong bias toward homeownership, which could be seen in policy decisions made after Katrina, said demographer Allison Plyer, head of the Data Center in New Orleans. She explained that money first went to owner-occupied housing, meaning rental units were slower to bounce back, though it's not clear how the current number of rental properties compares with the level before the hurricane.
There are some options for people who want to repair rental properties, said Garth MacDonald, a spokesman for the Small Business Association.
However, most options are loans, not outright assistance, even to fix up properties that one family member rents to another.
Landlords can borrow up to $200,000 at a minimum of 4 percent interest to fix most property but may be able to get 1.563 percent interest if they rent to family. Renters themselves can get up to $40,000, also at 1.563 percent interest.
Renee Carter, an accountant, owns one of the properties Andrews’ nonprofit helped gut. She inherited the house on Cyrus Avenue after her mother died.
All three of Carter's north Baton Rouge rentals took on water. She's trying to fix up the house on Cyrus so her tenants, a couple that includes a partially paralyzed man, can move back home.
Carter has applied for loans to cover the cost of repairs for the two properties she's bought over the years. She hasn't heard back yet about whether she'll qualify or under what terms.
Meanwhile, she's forging ahead with repairs to the home she and her brother inherited. The side door has been replaced and fans are working to dry out the inside. A window air conditioner was stolen somewhere along the way and will need to be replaced, and she's waiting to hear back to find out when she can put the drywall back up to get her tenants back home.
"They want to come back, but I can't let them live somewhere where it isn't safe," she said.
Should Louisiana qualify for additional Housing and Urban Development grants, the government could allocate some of its federal disaster funds toward fixing up rental properties, but that decision probably will come down to whether the state wants to make rentals a priority, MacDonald said.
"Housing is going to be a real serious issue for everybody," said East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis, who represents some of the flooded low-income neighborhoods.
Collins-Lewis frequently had sought to combat blight before the storm, and now the issue only stands to worsen. According to the 2010 U.S. census, there already were blocks where more than 10 percent of the housing units were vacant.
Take tract 6.01, an irregular-shaped block to the southwest of the intersection of North Foster Drive and Prescott Road. It's one of the city's poorest areas, and Hurricane Creek, which overflowed its banks during the flood, cuts right through it. According to city and census data, there are 509 total housing units. In 2010, 59 were vacant. In August, 393 flooded.
Collins-Lewis isn't sure what rebuilding will look like. She's reluctant to talk about how the local government may distribute federal disaster funds and said she doesn't want to talk about spending money the city-parish doesn't have yet.
"I don't like giving people false hope," she remarked.
It's simply not clear how long it will take for whatever federal funding is made available to trickle down to residents.
Martin, the Urban Institute researcher, and Nelson, the UNO professor, both noted past trouble surrounding the cost to replace damaged or destroyed homes. Following previous disasters, residents would get paid only the amount their homes were worth, not the cost it would take to replace them.
For example, two people whose houses were destroyed may elect to build identical new houses. However, if the first family's old house was built in the 1960s and the other family's was finished last year, the second family would get a lot more assistance, even though their costs are the same.
And with everyone hiring contractors at once, the cost to rebuild goes up. "If you lived in a lower-income neighborhood, you just got left," Nelson said.
The researchers hope some of those past issues will be addressed in time for Louisiana's recovery.
The local Redevelopment Authority already has fielded some calls from people asking about selling their property, said Gwen Hamilton, the agency's interim CEO.
Hamilton noted that if anything good came of Hurricane Katrina, it was that the storm allowed the local government an opportunity to perform redevelopment work.
One concern is that in the years after that storm, many complained about rising rents across New Orleans that made the city less affordable for families who lived there for generations. A Housing and Urban Development report found the city became even more sharply divided along racial lines, and a dearth of affordable housing combined with certain zoning policies caused gentrification of some neighborhoods.
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How the Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority ultimately responds will be dependent on funding, but Hamilton said the agency’s previously commissioned plans could still work as a guide. Generally, she would like to encourage more mixed-income housing to replace low-income housing by working with nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity, government agencies like the Housing Authority and private low-income developers.
Many areas already had substandard housing, and this summer’s storm both laid them bare and worsened conditions, Hamilton said.
“The flood exacerbated an existing problem,” she said.