Housing controls

October 03, 2005

WITH resettlement operations underway for displaced Hurricane Katrina victims, the federal government should centralize those operations under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to better manage the process, avoid waste and make relocations smoother for evacuees.

Although the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is supervising relocations of evacuees from shelters and managing construction of temporary mobile homes and trailer parks, HUD should be overseeing all housing operations.

FEMA has proven itself less than adept at managing wide-scale housing needs. It spent $1.2 million for tents ordered a week after the hurricane, yet none of the tents are in use by evacuees. The agency leased 7,800 cruise ship rooms but fewer than half of them are occupied. It ordered 125,000 mobile homes and trailers and so far has put up just 5,291 and managed to relocate only 3,171 families.

HUD, on the other hand, controls billions of dollars in federal housing funds and has been particularly efficient in responding to hurricane victims' housing needs. It has already identified 1,800 HUD-owned homes - foreclosed properties that would normally be put up for resale - that can be used by evacuees, and it is assessing others in 11 states stretching from South Carolina to Texas. The agency is also working with the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Association of Counties to identify vacant housing, and collaborating with Habitat for Humanity International to help in rebuilding efforts.

HUD also coordinated with public housing authorities around the country, and quickly removed bureaucratic hurdles, to allow displaced public housing residents to live in available units and allow others to use federal rent-assistance vouchers in host cities.

The U.S. Senate recently unanimously approved an amendment to a spending bill that would appropriate $3.5 billion to expand the voucher program to help 350,000 displaced families with rent payments for one year. HUD would administer the program directly or contract with housing agencies throughout the country. The plan, proposed by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, the Maryland Democrat, would allow housing agencies to help evacuees without shirking the needs of their own state residents who are on waiting lists for rent vouchers. Although House Republicans are balking at spending new money, they should support this sensible plan. In Houston, housing officials are scrambling to help thousands of displaced people and 9,000 evacuees have already applied for 10,000 temporary rent vouchers the city plans to distribute. Vouchers may prove cheaper than the mobile homes and trailers that many congressional lawmakers criticize as costly and wasteful.

Congress should turn the entire relocation operation over to HUD, which oversees 3,400 housing authorities around country and clearly has more housing experience than FEMA. It can get the job done more efficiently, and it can quickly get displaced people back on track to rebuilding their lives.

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