Economy

Hundreds Of New Orleans Residents Will Finally Be Able To Go Home

CREDIT: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

A front porch where a house once stood in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans

Tonya Boyd-Cannon and her family will finally be able to go home after a decade of trying.

More than 10 years after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and decimated the Lower Ninth Ward, community groups and local government have secured funding from the federal government they believe will be enough to get many of the residents home who have been trying to rebuild ever since they were displaced. For Boyd-Cannon, a jazz musician, that should mean she will finally be able to rebuild her family’s house on what became a vacant lot after the storm washed away the first one.

In the wake of the disaster, a program called Road Home was set up to disburse billions in funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to people who had been displaced. But many problems arose. Some people were incorrectly told to use insurance money and Road Home funding to pay off their mortgages before spending it on rebuilding. Others got bilked by unscrupulous contractors. HUD has already started reimbursing people who ran into these problems.

Other issues prevented people from getting the money together that was necessary to complete their houses. A big one was rent: displaced residents often ended up renting apartments over the last decade, spending precious money while they were waiting, depleting the resources they needed to complete rebuilding.

M.A. Sheehan, director of the House the 9 program at the Lower 9th Ward Homeownership Association, was part of the community effort to find funding for these families. And they targeted the hundreds of millions that is still sitting unused in the Road Home fund. Last week, HUD announced it would comply with that demand and release money to reimburse the families that had been using up their money paying rent since August of 2008.

“The money was just sitting there and it couldn’t be used for any other purpose,” she said. “We had to get new policies passed so they legally could release the money, and that is what we just accomplished.”

Nearly 700 former residents of the Lower Ninth Ward could qualify for the new funding, House the 9 says, which could be what it takes to get them home. Assuming Boyd-Cannon qualifies, it will be enough for her family. She and her husband have spent $48,000 on three apartments since the hurricane, according to Sheehan’s group. If they’re reimbursed for that, combined with $80,000 from other policies, they’ll have enough to build their house on their vacant lot.

“We think that it really will be able to get most of the people back,” Sheehan said. “There may be some people who fall through the cracks, but it’s still enough to help a significant portion of the people.”

The groups also won another small victory: applicants for this reimbursement funding will only have to provide an affidavit for three of the years that they spent paying rent, rather than attempt to track down receipts or other documentation. Sheehan’s group is already in touch with hundreds of families who are interested in applying, but it’s also planning to do an outreach campaign to find the rest. Then it’s a matter of getting people approved, hiring contractors, and building houses. That may not get people home by the end of the year, but she expects construction for a lot of people to at least get underway before January.

“We think this is the final piece of the puzzle, we really think this is the moment when you’ll be able to get back home,” she said.

That can only help to boost the residents who are already there. According to House the 9, just 37 percent of the Lower Ninth Ward’s population has returned, compared to an 89 percent repopulation rate for the whole city. But when homeowners move back in, they boost property values that have been depressed by so many vacant lots and they attract more businesses and services to the area. There’s already a new high school, community center, police substation, and small grocery store open again, and a new CVS is planning to open up while a laundromat and barber shop are in the works. That, in turn, helps attract even more residents to move in. “It’s becoming a place of life again,” she said. “Literally the rhythms of life returning to the neighborhood is just really special.”

After the victory of securing HUD funding, Sheehan wants to focus next on the homeowners who didn’t get Road Home funding in the first place, as well as all the renters who wouldn’t have qualified for rebuilding assistance. The first step was helping all the Road Home recipients; the next step will be reaching out to these other families.

There’s another group of residents who will never be able to return home, though: a number of people have passed away while waiting for funds. “The time the government operates on is inconsistent with the time that people’s lives operate on,” Sheehan said. “Over the summer, our rallying cry was, ‘No one else to die while waiting for HUD to act.'”

Theo Watson had been working diligently over the last decade to rebuild his family’s home in the Lower Ninth Ward so his father, Frank, could get back in his house. “My chief concern is just getting my father back in his home,” he told ThinkProgress in August. He had gotten so far as building the outlines of a house but had run out of funding, and had been hoping to get reimbursed for the rent he paid to house his father and himself to finish up the job.

But Frank Watson died a few days before HUD’s decision was finalized. “This policy will probably get that family back,” Sheehan noted. “But Frank Watson won’t be with them.”