Housing efficiently

October 20, 2005

CITY OFFICIALS in Houston have found housing for nearly 20,000 Hurricane Katrina victims and have lined up 16,000 additional apartments. San Antonio found apartments for 750 families. In Atlanta, where 42,000 displaced families need housing, the city is spending $400,000 of its own money to house some 40 families, far less than needed and far more frustrating than it would be if the Federal Emergency Management Agency were doing a better job housing evacuees or reimbursing cities that have found apartments for them.

While municipalities hosting displaced families deserve credit for taking the initiative to find them housing, it is a shame FEMA's responsibilities have fallen to local government officials who are doing the job more efficiently and cheaply than the federal agency. Despite the positive results of those efforts - more people in apartments and not in emergency shelters - this should not become a permanent trend. The housing process should be centralized by the federal government so it can track federal spending on resettlement costs that so far have been shockingly haphazard and lacking accountability.

Consider the 120,000 mobile homes and travel trailers FEMA ordered for evacuees. Just 21,086 are ready for occupancy and only 11,244 are occupied. The process has been slowed by a lack of suitable locations with access to water, sewer and electric services. Meanwhile, some 200,000 displaced people are living in hotels at a cost of millions even though 500,000 apartments are readily available in Florida, Georgia and Texas, where large numbers of evacuees are located.

Houston is emerging as a model of efficiency, and housing officials there have even written a helpful handbook for times of disaster. Maybe FEMA could use a copy as a refresher guide for how things should and can be done.

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