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These New Orleans Residents Are Still Trying To Go Home

A house in the Lower Ninth Ward that still stood vacant in 2013 CREDIT: AP PHOTO/PATRICK SEMANSKY
A house in the Lower Ninth Ward that still stood vacant in 2013 CREDIT: AP PHOTO/PATRICK SEMANSKY

The only thing Theo Watson has left to remember his family’s home in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward is one picket from the white picket fence that surrounded the property. Everything else was completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

“Everything was washed away, the house was actually pushed off the foundation,” he said.

But he and his father still consider the property where the house once stood to be home. And they’ve been trying to get back there ever since the storm hit a decade ago. “The process of getting back home has been an ongoing struggle from the beginning,” he said.

Sunday marks 10 years since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and devastated the city. In the intervening decade, many residents have rebuilt destroyed homes; others have decided to relocate elsewhere. Yet there are still plenty of people who are still trying to return home.

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A variety of obstacles have gotten in the way. For some affected by the storm, they had to prove their ownership of their houses before getting any relief funding, a complex task in a city where people often pass houses down informally between generations with little paper trail. The relief funding from Road Home, the program set up to disburse billions from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), was doled out based on property value, not on what it would take to rebuild a house. Because many displaced residents were in low-income, heavily African-American neighborhoods with depressed values, the funding didn’t stretch far enough. Some people were incorrectly told to use insurance money to first pay off their mortgages before putting anything toward rebuilding. Many ran into unscrupulous contractors who bilked them. Meanwhile, others have had to pay rent in the intervening years, depleting any resources they might have been able to put toward rebuilding.

We really want to get this put back together so that we all have a place that we can consider home.

M.A. Sheehan, director of the House the 9 program at the Lower 9th Ward Homeownership Association, knows of about 700 people who owned homes in the Lower Ninth Ward that got Road Home funding but didn’t have enough to fully rebuild and return home. “We have hundreds of families who still want to come back because they have such a strong attachment to this place,” she said. “And also because they were homeowners here, they can’t afford to buy a whole new house somewhere else. This place is where they can reestablish themselves as homeowners.”

Watson’s first hurdle was proving ownership of the house before his family’s application for relief funding could even be considered. His mother passed away before the storm, leaving his father partial owner, and there was no formal paperwork passing the whole thing on to him. So they had to do what is called a succession by getting her five sons to sign off on his ownership with the help of a lawyer.

Then they were told by Road Home that the mortgage on the house had to be paid off before they could get funding. It took two and a half years to prove his father’s ownership and then to pay that off.

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The troubles didn’t end there. Once they got funding, they had to use some of it to pay back the lawyer who helped them with the succession. Another portion of money had to go to his father’s medical bills. “By the time we got started on the house, a good portion of the money had been spent,” he said.

They pressed on and started rebuilding a house on the property, following the Road Home guidelines. And they got pretty far: a foundation, walls, windows, doors, and a roof. Then they ran out of funds.

“They told us, oh there will be other organizations willing to help us along the way,” he said. “But every organization we called about it at that particular time had already run out of funds.”

So the bare outlines of a house still sits empty on the family property where Watson spent his childhood and where his grandchildren spent parts of their own. Meanwhile, he and his father are paying rent for an apartment in a different part of the city, which means they can’t save up any money to put into the partially finished house.

But he’s determined to get home once again. “My chief concern is just getting my father back in his home,” he said, a man who is today 86. “Not to be there, it’s just like something is really missing in our life. So we really want to get this put back together so that we all have a place that we can consider home.”

Sheehan’s group is trying to find money anywhere it can to help people like Watson get back home. House the 9 says there is still $119 million left in the Road Home funds. It has written a letter to HUD Secretary Julian Castro to release the funds immediately to those who still need them: people who had to pay rent over the years, homeowners who have documentation of contractor fraud, people who are being forced to pay off their mortgages with relief funds, and others.

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Her group has already found more than $4 million in additional funding for 34 families trying to rebuild and come back to the neighborhood. But it’s tough going. “That is such a task, there are so many documentation requirements,” she said.

The organization is also going after any errors Road Home made when it doled out funding. “Road Home processed 130,000 cases, so there were going to be some mistakes,” she said. “And we are finding millions of dollars’ worth of mistakes in our clients’ files.” For some, the program got the square footage of the house wrong, potentially docking hundreds of thousands from the amount the owner should have received. Others used incorrect appraisals to assess the funding. Some that based awards on income miscalculated a person’s income. “They constantly review files to see if anybody was overpaid,” she said. But “they have no policy for reviewing files for underpayments.”

Other residents still need to prove ownership before they even think about the funding problem. For Earline Duplessis, that red tape means that she’s still living in her daughter’s refurbished FEMA trailer. The house she lived in with her mother was completely destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, although her mother was able to get Road Home funding and free labor from charities to rebuild it. Her mother passed away before they were able to move back home, so when Duplessis went back to the house she was alone. Then Hurricane Isaac hit in 2012 and a tree fell through the roof, crushing it, and six inches of water came into the house despite it sitting seven feet in the air. “All the inside was destroyed, all the furniture, the flooring, the walls, the electrical work has to be redone,” she said.

But this time around, Road Home funding wasn’t forthcoming, nor was anything from insurance or FEMA. In order to get the funding, Duplessis would have to prove she owned the house. “Even though it was verbally approved that the home would be mine, I didn’t have the legal work,” she said. Even so, she was able to repair the roof, walls, and flooring with her own money. Then her husband got ill and passed away last year, and “everything just started going downhill,” she said.

Today, she’s living with her daughter and grandchildren but still yearning to return to the family home. All that’s left to do in the house is the electrical work. But on her fixed income as a retiree, she’s got nothing extra to finish the job. “I am hopeful,” she said. “I don’t know how long it will take and I am being patient.”

I don’t know how long it will take and I am being patient.

She’s grateful to have a place to live, but it’s not where she wants to be. “Sometimes you do want to be alone,” she said. “I just miss that me time. Time to be by myself, time to do what I feel like doing, just time to enjoy life alone sometimes. Sometimes you want to be where you can just speak or just do how you feel.”

Many New Orleanian homeowners who have never had to worry about formal paper trails are struggling through the same predicament. Legal aid organizations are swamped with housing cases like Duplessis’s. “Our housing advocacy work and legal work…kind of exploded after Hurricane Katrina,” Laura Tuggle, civil legal aid attorney and executive director of the Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, said. According to Tuggle, out of about 140 legal services organizations in the whole country, hers alone did more than a quarter of all probate cases — those related to housing ownership — in 2008. Even now, her organization operates a weekly clinic on wills and successions that has six to eight appointments a week.

This, she says, has been the biggest problem facing homeowners trying to get home after the storm. “One thing Katrina really taught us and opened our eyes to is the importance of people clearing title when someone has passed away in their family,” or in other words making sure the legal paperwork is completed to formally pass on ownership. Many people in New Orleans have been living in the city for generations, informally passing houses down between them. “It was just this tremendous barrier for folks to be able to access any kind of rebuilding assistance or even insurance proceeds or FEMA help,” she explained.

Jackie Brown isn’t even trying to get assistance to get back to New Orleans, even though she still calls it home and wants to be buried there when she dies. She’s just trying to get out from under the obligations of being a property owner there. Her family home was destroyed in Katrina, and she and her mother decided to move to Houston and not to rebuild. But before Brown can sell the property, she’s had to deal with a number of successions, first for her father’s death and then when her mother passed away in 2009.

Finally clearing the title to the property and being able to sell it would mean a great deal. “That would free me up from all these taxes, keeping the yard cut, keeping the burden over my head,” she said. “I’ll be free, I will just be free to fly like a bird.”

The reverberations of legal fights like Brown’s have affected entire neighborhoods. “At the end of the day, what a lot of it means is that you still have thousands of homes that are just sitting vacant,” Tuggle said.

This is painfully true in the Lower Ninth Ward. Just 37 percent of the population has returned there, according to House the 9, compared to an 89 percent repopulation rate for the city as a whole, the lowest rate of any neighborhood. On Theo Watson’s block, he estimates that of about 20 destroyed houses, only four have been rebuilt, including his family’s. On one side of the street, no one has tried to rebuild. “It’s lacking a lot when it comes to the people that’s trying to get back,” he noted.

Empty houses mean declining property values. The lack of rebuilding in the area means empty and overgrown lots, which lowers the value of properties and makes residents feel a little less safe. “Who wants to live on a block where there are only two houses?” Sheehan asked.

But empty houses also represent the loss of someone’s home, as well as the unraveling of a community. And the community in the Lower Ninth was incredibly close knit. “There is this real feeling of loss,” Sheehan said. “You really can’t recreate it, it’s just an ineffable thing.”

Sheehan is optimistic, though. She noted that the neighborhood’s population grew by 150 households last year. “You would think ten years out nobody is coming back anymore, but they are coming back here and it’s starting to have this feeling of momentum,” she said. She pointed out that a new high school is starting classes this fall. A community center and a police substation are open again. A new CVS is set to open up soon. “Not everybody is back, but even the people who are back have really strong connections,” she said.

How can we continue to get resources to rebuild when August 30 passes?

She’s also planning to capitalize on all the attention on the city’s recovery thanks to the 10-year anniversary by pressing for policy changes that could help more people come home. But a spotlight has its dangers. “When you have the attention, that’s when things happen,” she said. But “the thing I’m really worried about is…we are getting so much attention right now and nobody’s going to look again after August 30. How can we continue to get resources to rebuild when August 30 passes?”

Before and after August 30, Watson will keep doing whatever it takes to finish his house. “We’re determined to get our house completed no matter what,” he said.

Road Home has now said that because it forced Watson’s family to pay off its mortgage before getting funds, it would refund that money spent on the mortgage. But in order for them to get anything, his family has to come up with any money above and beyond that required to complete the house. They only put $32,000 toward paying off the mortgage; they need $72,000 to finish rebuilding, which means he’s now on the hook for an additional $40,000 or so. Banks haven’t been willing to lend his elderly father money. They’re working with Sheehan’s group to try to find money so they can get down the home stretch.

“We’re not giving up, we’re not giving up,” he said. “I even told my dad, if I’ve got to get out there with my own hammer and nail, I’ll do what I have to do.”