FEMA to start closing Katrina trailer parks

Advocates worry the park closures could leave some struggling to find housing.

;NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Dozens of Hurricane Katrina victims still living in FEMA trailer parks will have to find new housing by Friday, as the agency works to shutter the temporary facilities it set up after the 2005 storm.

The move is intended to help the hurricane victims move into more stable, permanent housing, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said. But advocates worry that a housing shortage in the still-recovering area could leave some struggling to find a place to live.

It wasn’t clear how many residents remained in the parks – as many as 13 – slated for closure Friday, though Ronnie Simpson, a FEMA spokesman, estimated there were dozens. Residents were given at least 60 days’ notice, and FEMA is offering rental assistance to those living in the trailers, he said.

“People act like we’re doing a disservice for moving people from a little trailer to an apartment or a house,” he said Thursday. “I’m not sure that anyone really thought of these trailers as being their permanent home; I hope not. They were meant for temporary housing.”

FEMA plans to close all its trailer sites set up specifically for residents affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita within the next six months and end leases within existing commercial trailer parks for other hurricane victims in the state by late 2008. The next wave of closures is set for New Year’s Eve.

More than 6,400 households will be affected, FEMA says. The areas slated for closure Friday are mostly in the New Orleans area.

Davida Finger, a staff attorney with the Loyola University New Orleans Law Clinic who handles hurricane-related cases, said she was “deeply concerned,” particularly when considering the current housing shortage. Katrina severely damaged or destroyed much of the housing stock in New Orleans, and affordable rents have been a big concern for residents and housing advocates, though prices have eased somewhat.

U.S. Housing and Urban Development data, analyzed by a local research center, show an average rent of $764 for an efficiency in the metropolitan area and $990 for a two-bedroom. A two-bedroom rented for $978 a year ago and $676 in the fiscal year that began before Katrina hit, that data showed.

Lori Potter, one of the last remaining residents at a paved park in eastern New Orleans, said she’s been looking for housing – she checked out more than a dozen places Wednesday and had at least two appointments Thursday – but said the places she’d found that were willing to accept FEMA payments either were in parts of town where she didn’t feel safe or in poor condition.

FEMA says people living in trailers are given listings of available rentals in their area, but Finger contends not everyone is able to “beat the pavement” to check out the units and make sure they’re safe.

“What’s going on with housing right now continues to be an emergency,” she said. “It continues to be a crisis, and there are no quick solutions, which make these additional announcements so difficult for people now.”

Simpson said trailer park residents won’t be evicted if they need extra time to find an apartment. If an apartment isn’t ready by the time FEMA begins taking a park down, he said the agency would put a family up in a hotel until their new home is ready.

The plans will not affect families living in trailers in front of their hurricane-damaged homes – at least 25,000 such trailers remain, according to a FEMA estimate.

Simpson said FEMA has been working with state and local governments on the move. The city of New Orleans, he said, knows “exactly what we’re closing and why we’re closing” them.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Ray Nagin did not return an e-mail seeking comment Thursday.

Boyd Joseph, who has been living in a trailer park slated for closure Friday in neighboring St. Bernard Parish, was optimistic. The park in which he’d been staying has been safe and quiet, he said, and his new apartment is also in a nice neighborhood.

The soft dirt in several lots next to his trailer maintained the outline of trailers that had already been moved.

“We’ve been through a lot,” he said from his wooden porch. “I ain’t tripping.”