Thursday, April 24, 2008

Extenuating Circumstances

Today's report detailing our enlightened city leadership's plan to evict FEMA trailer residents is so rife with contradictions I almost don't know where to begin.

Recovery director Ed Blakely is now defending an August 15th final deadline for the removal of FEMA trailers from Orleans Parish. extensions to be granted to allow neighbors to remain after that date will be permitted in instances of "really extenuating circumstances."


There are many good reasons to remove the trailers as soon as possible.

They are unsightly. They crowd streets and driveways. Illegal rentals underneath the system are becoming public nuisance problems.

Most importantly, they are slowly killing the people living in them.

So the city would like to remove the trailers. But if only they knew how. If only it were so simple.

Though the formaldehyde risks were known two and a half years ago, FEMA didn't get around to admitting them until February. It was then that FEMA began a hastily-arranged emergency relocation plan for the estimated 25,000 New Orleanians living in toxic trailers. FEMA sought out cheap motels and apartments to house the thousands needing a safer place to live.

Even our own C. Ray Nagin quickly recognized how problematic FEMA's plan was, how potentially damaging it was. He wrote a letter to the President describing the issues. Here's a brief synopsis:

- There is a terrible shortage of affordable housing in New Orleans.
- This means that thousands of New Orleans FEMA trailer evacuees will have to be relocated outside of New Orleans because there are not available cheap motel and apartment units.
- That means that there would a second great displacement of working poor New Orleanians.
- This would hurt the city's economy because there is already a shortage of cheap labor and the service economy on which this city so heavily relies cannot afford to lose workers.
- It total, another major displacement of thousands of New Orleanians would represent a huge economic burden to the city and also it would be immoral and unfair to the evacuees.

Today's article wistfully recalls that letter to the President, "Blakely said Wednesday, that as far as he knows, Bush did not respond to Nagin's letter."

Nagin had called on Bush and FEMA to, instead of displacing thousands of our neighbors, provide free medical care to victims of formaldehyde exposure and rehabilitate affordable housing units to provide shelter for people right here in New Orleans.

A nice gesture by the Mayor, for sure, but not one he or anyone else expected to generate a positive response from the Bush administration. No chance in hell they'd agree to rehabilitate our affordable housing stock and provide free medical care.

So essentially, having rebuffed FEMA's disgraceful offer to displace 25,000 of our neighbors and offering an alternative plan from fantasy land that expected a do-little federal government to wave a magic wand, the city was left pretty much to its own devices.

What generally happens when the municipal government of New Orleans is responsible for something?

Nothing happens.

Thus we waited. And waited. And waited.

We waited for their strategy to provide affordable housing for those living in FEMA trailers but unable to procure Road Home money. We waited for their strategy to provide affordable housing to people scratching and clawing at minimum wage jobs to save enough money to make their own homes habitable again. We waited for the city to provide a viable strategy to get people out of these toxic trailers by summer time, when the heat increases the risks from formaldehyde.

Finally, at the end of March, Stacy Head and Ed Blakley suggested an idea: impose a deadline.

June 1st was floated as a possible date to require people to move out of their trailers. That would be plenty of time for people to either earn an exemption by proving that they were still waiting for Road Home money or to find another affordable housing option, right?

Well, no.

Stacy Head didn't even cite formaldehyde exposure as a main factor for needing to get rid of the FEMA trailers in haste. Instead, she indicated that the trailers had become eyesores, were being rented illegally, and were being inhabited as a "lifestyle choice."

There within lies the big hypocrisy of the whole recovery effort.

Not only is our city's affordable housing crisis so severe that there were not enough local options for FEMA to relocate victims of formaldehyde exposure within reasonable proximity to their jobs, but affordable housing is in such short supply that our neighbors have been reduced to actively seeking to illegally rent poisonous FEMA trailers because decent apartments are so expensive and difficult to obtain.

While city businesses yearn for a stable workforce, city government refuses to listen to calls for a reevaluation of Alphonso Jackson's plans to demolish public housing. While there are many elements to that debate, if the city was searching for emergency shelter for the estimated 20,000 people looking for relocation from FEMA trailers (or the estimated 12,000 homeless) they need look no further than Lafitte, which has just been leveled by city bulldozers.

City officials like to mention the affordable housing crisis when it is convenient for them. When FEMA's toxic trailer evacuation plan might result in a loss of workforce, we have an affordable housing crisis that makes it untenable. When the Census Bureau underestimates our population costing the city millions in federal funds, we have an affordable housing crisis that causes families to double or triple up in single units.

Other times, it is an inconvenience to city officials, something to be brushed aside as an exaggeration, as the misguided posturing of some bleeding heart. (Like when they're demolishing public housing, planning to demolish public housing, or claiming that the economic crisis does not threaten the replacement mixed income communities or other affordable housing developments waiting to be built throughout the city.)


So now August 15th is to be a hard deadline for people to find a place to live and get out of their trailers. (Let's just forget the public heath crisis that demanded we rush to move people out before the heat of summer.) Do YOU think we'll have enough affordable housing by then? I'm skeptical. Just how will the city enforce a deadline? Will people be put out on the streets?

Today's article
only raises more questions.

FEMA will be responsible for contacting trailer residents and informing them of the upcoming deadlines and working with them to find new homes. And we all have 100 percent confidence in FEMA's ability to do this)

As for the City:

Blakely said the city does not have the resources to do "individual case management," and no city money will be spent to move people out of trailers or provide new housing for them.

No case management. No new housing provided. Little affordable housing being built. Thousands of people needing to be moved out of poisonous FEMA trailers. Only so much room under the overpass at Claiborne and Canal.


Perhaps most damning, is the comparison made in today's article detailing how the always compassionate Jefferson Parish dealt with the same problem.

In Jeff, there were 17,000 trailers in 2006 and Parish officials have been involved in expediting the removal of trailers ever since. They set a deadline for March of this year for all units no longer required by homeowners and have sent teams of inspectors to check.

The contrast is stark. Whatever the motivation of Jefferson Parish officials, they instituted a game plan over a year ago and have stuck to it, working slowly and methodically. Now there are only 600 illegal trailers remaining. In Orleans Parish, our officials sat on their hands and sat on their hands some more. Then all of a sudden, they hastily arrange short-term deadlines, provide absolutely no insight into the procedures, stand still on affordable housing issues, and claim that this has been "a well-studied and thoughtful policy discussion." No, it hasn't been. It has been a pathetic indicator of City Hall's larger inability to govern compassionately or even effectively.

You wonder if we're close to reaching a tipping point as a community. This isn't even a one-party city, it's a no-party system. Alan asks if the Democrats can save New Orleans, but I want this city to save itself. We're governed by cannibals.


I believe I've covered the FEMA trailer deadline/formaldehyde issues diligently. For background information on this situation, please click on the 'FEMA Trailers' tag below to see a rundown of all I've written on the subject. See also 'affordable housing' and 'public housing.'


mominem said...

I have one prediction.

The City will do nothing and then impose hefty fine and fees arbitrarily and capriciously imposed.

E said...

Wait a minute, you think that the city will do nothing?

Does the city have a history of doing nothing?

What could lead you to such a bold prediction?