BATON ROUGE, La. – Launching a new program to provide temporary living assistance and to clear shelters nationwide of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina, the federal government in the next few days will begin making lump-sum payments of $2,358 toward three months’ rent for each qualified evacuee who obtains housing anywhere in the country.

The news took Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco by surprise and instantly opened a new rift between her administration and President Bush on the critical issue of how Louisiana will lure back its citizens after the dramatic dispersal of New Orleans residents caused by the storm. It also placed Blanco and Bush at odds over the option of erecting large trailer parks in Louisiana for evacuees.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the lump-sum payments, made by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will cover temporary housing costs for “several hundred thousand” homeowners and renters whose homes were destroyed or are uninhabitable. After the initial lump-sum payment, further assistance will be available for up to 18 months depending on the circumstances, he said.

Low-income evacuees who before the storm received federal housing vouchers through the Department of Housing and Urban Development will continue to get financial support through local public housing authorities wherever they choose to live.

The issue of interim housing has become one of the most controversial and significant debates on post-Katrina government policy. Federal and state officials want to get evacuees out of shelters and uncomfortable living conditions as soon as possible.

The longer evacuees become integrated in places outside Louisiana, state officials contend, the less likely they are to return. If they find some form of housing in the New Orleans area, even temporarily, they can fill jobs and help restart the region’s economy.

Blanco, a Democrat, has been pushing for a program to place evacuees in hotels and trailer parks with community services in Louisiana, but she learned of the new federal initiative Friday, just before Chertoff and HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson made the announcement in Washington, D.C.

“The announcement today from HUD and Homeland Security about rental assistance and housing vouchers may certainly address the needs of our friends in Alabama and Mississippi,” Blanco said. “But it does little for Louisiana citizens who want to come home, and we’d like our citizens to be able to come to Louisiana for this interim period.”

The FEMA rent payments will be a further inducement to keep Louisiana citizens out of state because few of the payments can be used here now, Blanco said. Hurricane Katrina decimated the housing stock in the New Orleans region, and what was left across southern Louisiana has been bought or rented, she said.

“Therefore, with no housing available, vouchers do very little for our evacuees,” Blanco said. “Vouchers don’t give people a way back home to Louisiana.”

Blanco on Friday asked FEMA to accelerate the purchase of blocks of hotel and motel rooms and to “dramatically speed the delivery of trailers for our transitional communities.” These would be supplemented nearby with services for health care, education, child care and transportation.

“The path that I’ve outlined – moving our people from shelters or the homes of in-laws or friends and into hotels and transitional trailer communities here in Louisiana – gives our people hope,” Blanco said. “It gives them a clear path that they can see, a path that will help them get their lives together and get them home to Louisiana.”

Trailer and mobile home communities have been slow in coming, partly because of the complicated logistics of finding suitable sites that can handle the temporary villages.

Chertoff said FEMA continues to move forward to establish trailer villages in Louisiana and acknowledged that some towns and parishes want them because of the labor force they will provide. But if people decide to live in a FEMA-supplied trailer or mobile home, Chertoff said, they will not be eligible for the new rent subsidy.


“So it’s not meant to substitute for the trailers, but it’s meant to recognize the fact that as we speak not everybody can or necessarily wants to get into trailers,” Chertoff said.

Establishing trailer villages with economic and social support services will require a complex government effort. Chertoff said the lump-sum payment program will reduce red tape.

FEMA relief programs can provide an evacuee up to $26,200 for the emergency needs of food, shelter, clothing, personal necessities and medical needs. The agency has sought ways to get initial lumps of that cash quickly to the Katrina victims without requiring extensive paperwork and proof of need.

Soon after Katrina, FEMA expedited evacuee checks of $2,000 as an initial emergency payment. Already, more than 747,000 households have qualified for some kind of assistance through FEMA on an immediate basis, and 648,000 of those have received more than $1.5 billion in expedited funds, according to the agency. The new rent program probably will cost about $2 billion for the three-month period, Chertoff said.

To receive the lump-sum payment by check or electronic transfer, evacuees from Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana must have registered through FEMA by calling 1-800-621-FEMA or applying on-line at Applicants need to register only once, but should update their registration if their address has changed. The initial payment is calculated based on the national average fair market rent rate for a two-bedroom unit. The payment is portable and may be applied to temporary housing costs “for any location an evacuee determines,” FEMA says.

Eligible households will receive a letter describing specific rules and guidelines on the eligible use of the funds. Eventually, the submission of rental receipts and other documentation will be required.

Chertoff said the lump-sum checks and bank transfers would start flowing this week, but that people should anticipate it will take a few days to receive them. Those evacuees who have registered for direct deposit will get the money sooner, he said.


(Robert Travis Scott is a staff writer for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. He can be contacted at roberttravisscott(at) Times-Picayune satff writer Laura Maggi contributed to this story.)

AP-NY-09-24-05 1822EDT

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