DENHAM SPRINGS — A small one-bedroom apartment was plenty for Eunice Thompson.
The 86-year-old had her own living room, kitchen and dining room. She was surrounded by friends who lived in their own identical apartments. Each day, the small woman with curly white hair rode the bus to the Livingston Council on Aging to eat, visit, exercise and play bingo.
But since her low-income elderly apartment flooded in August 2016, Thompson said she has been unable to find another place she can cover with her $800 monthly Social Security check.
Thompson used to pay $141 each month to live at Livingston Manor, a privately owned elderly living complex that is subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. After the flood, she initially lived with her granddaughter and now stays with her 58-year-old daughter.
"There's no apartments I can afford," she said.
The catastrophic floods washed away some of the apartments serving Livingston Parish's neediest people, including those that cater to the elderly. Due to long waits for funding to rebuild, two of those complexes, which housed about 70 low-income senior citizens, are still sitting gutted and vacant — their former tenants scattered with family, in nursing homes and even hundreds of miles away.
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Though Livingston Manor and the Denham Springs Housing Authority are funded by HUD, former residents have not been granted vouchers or other assistance from the agency to help them rent available apartments nearby.
Tenants were eligible for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and some received temporary trailers and other help. But residents and advocates said most did not get enough.
"Some did get some FEMA assistance, but they didn’t get a lot," said Fred Banks, director of the Denham Springs Housing Authority. "Some didn’t know how to do this," he said, referring to the process of applying.
Of seven low-income housing properties in Livingston Parish reached by the Advocate, two funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture offered income-based rent for seniors comparable to Livingston Manor and the housing authority and both had waiting lists. A HUD spokesman said the agency subsidizes two other, similar apartment complexes in Albany, both of which are full.
Property managers at the five other complexes said rent was more than $400 per month. Fair market rent is $789 per month for a one-bedroom apartment in Livingston Parish, according to HUD.
Scott Hudman, a spokesman for HUD, pointed out that residents of both complexes were eligible for FEMA assistance for 18 months. In the case of the housing authority, HUD is reviewing an application for tenant protection vouchers that would help former residents pay for apartments while that complex is demolished and rebuilt. Residents of Livingston Manor are not eligible for those vouchers because it is a contracted facility and not public housing, he said.
The limiting housing options now in Livingston were a reason Gayle Causey, 67, moved after the flood to Jacksonville, North Carolina. Causey previously lived in Livingston Manor in an apartment near Thompson.
Causey said she evacuated from the complex to a shelter before staying with friends and relatives in Baton Rouge, Shreveport and Monroe. Her daughter, a survivor of Hurricane Katrina, knew to register her quickly with FEMA, she said.
“Everybody was homeless, and there was no other place to live,” she said of the immediate aftermath of the floods.
With FEMA assistance, she was able to buy a replacement car and move to North Carolina, where her daughter and grandchildren live. She said FEMA also paid for her to stay a month in a hotel until she could convince a senior citizen apartment complex to take her in, despite their waiting list.
Causey created a Facebook page after the disaster to reconnect with other former residents, who scattered after the flood. She said two people live now in Walker, while three found apartments in Ponchatoula and another found a place in Natchez.
“I was among the younger of the ones that were there,” she said. “Several of them were petering on the edge, and it just forced them to go to a nursing home, because they had no place else to go.”
Livingston Manor is a privately owned 45-unit apartment complex in Denham Springs. The property operates under a contract with HUD to provide subsidized apartments for the elderly and disabled. Residents typically pay 30 percent of their income as rent.
Alan Brockman, president of Sunquest Properties, which manages Livingston Manor, said the owners have been unable to rebuild so far, due to lack of funding. The property was underinsured for the extensive damage it received in August 2016, he said. The company had already lost 277 apartments in northern Louisiana during the March 2016 floods, which put them in a hard position when Livingston Manor was damaged, he said.
But rebuilding may start soon at Livingston Manor. Recently, he has been approved for disaster relief funding from the Louisiana Housing Corporation, which is distributing money from the federal Community Development Block Grant program.
“As our communities continue to recover from the floods, our top priority is to develop housing that is affordable for Louisiana residents. We understand and are working to resolve the unique challenges the seniors face in our communities. Livingston Manor is one example towards that effort,” LHC Executive Director Keith Cunningham said in a statement.
Cunningham said the agency has a forthcoming initiative to build more affordable housing in flood-affected communities to be announced next week, and he will encourage builders interested in senior housing to apply.
Brockman said he is waiting on an environmental report to be written in order to start renovating the apartments. He is hopeful the apartments could reopen by fall of 2018.
“It’s a stuck situation waiting for disaster relief funds,” he said. “We want to be able to get it back open for our residents, many of whom want to return to the property and have reached out to us.”
The Denham Springs Housing Authority, a 52-unit public housing complex about half of which Banks said was used by seniors, may also be on its way to recovery.
According to documents provided by Banks, FEMA has determined that two of the 19 buildings are 88 percent damaged. He said the agency has approved plans to demolish and rebuild those units at a three to four foot elevation.
Banks said that, based on his conversations with FEMA, this indicates the entire complex will be demolished with FEMA covering 90 percent of the cost.
Once final approval is given, he expects it to take 18 months to rebuild.
A spokeswoman from FEMA confirmed the agency is working with the housing authority and said those two buildings are in the final stages of approval and funding.
With that news in hand, Banks said he also expects HUD to approve tenant protection vouchers, which, like Section 8 vouchers, would help former residents cover their rent.
“That will resolve a large number of the complaints we are receiving now from tenants,” he said.
Banks said some of his former residents have been struggling since the floods last year, unable to find apartments they can afford without some kind of a subsidy.
He said a few elderly former residents are living in apartments costing $700 to $800, despite receiving social security checks of about $900.
"They’ve got about $200 to live off for medication, incidentals and food," he said. "That’s not all of them, but we’ve got families like that."
And living with family has not been a perfect solution, he said.
“There’s the issue of privacy,” he said. “You live by yourself all these years, and then the flood comes in, washes you out, and you’ve got to go live with your daughter. They’ve got different lifestyles. So part of this is psychological.”
Banks said he plans to host workshops with the residents about how to apply for aid once the complex reopens.
“If we get a second disaster they’ll know what to do, other than panic,” he said.
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Kay Granger, director of the Livingston Council on Aging, said seniors in particular have had trouble recovering since the flood. Those who owned their homes often did not have funding or the will power to rebuild. For those in apartments, few had insurance even to cover their belongings or got much assistance from FEMA, she said.
Granger estimates that about 50 percent of the seniors she serves have moved since the flood — some to nursing homes and others in with family.
"We still don't have a lot of our seniors back here or in their homes," she said.
Seated before a bingo board at the Council of Aging late last month, Joyce Rheams reminisced about her former apartment at the housing authority, where she lived for 42 years. Her apartment, which is now gutted and smelling of mold, is in one of the buildings that FEMA has approved for demolition, said Banks.
The 75-year-old recalled the photograph of her great grandmother, which she lost. She said she’s grateful that, with the help of family and a few hundred dollars from FEMA, she has gotten new things.
For about a year after the flood, she lived with her daughter. Now, despite only getting a $800 monthly social security check, Rheams is living in a small $500 per month house in Denham Springs with two great grandchildren.
She’d like to see things get back to where they were prior to the flood.
“Back in my own apartment, with lots of food and clothing and my neighbors,” she said.