Some of the elements of the Hurricane Ike housing relief package have become know this week. Here is a review of what I know along with what I have heard about the two main emergency housing programs.
I have not been keeping up very well with the shelter situation. The population was rapidly declining toward the end of the week from the 22,000 or so at the start of the week. The shelters in the cities far removed from the disaster were emptying out and closing down. The report at the Joint Housing Task Force meeting in Houston earlier this week was that their was an expectation that shelters in the disaster region would gain population as people came home and found they could not move into their homes.
This program reimburses survivors for the cost of a motel stay. At the end of last week this program had about 8,800 participants in the direct pay FEMA program. Other folks were expected to stay in motels and submit bills to FEMA for reimbursement later and there is no way to count them. The program is set to run through Oct 14 but it is expected that Governor Perry will soon ask that it be extended for at least a couple of weeks.
The program has experienced some problems. There seems to be a shortage of rooms in the Houston area close into town. Low income folks lacking cars (we were told by city officals that 18 percent of Houston households have no private transportation) are completely isolated and cut off when they have to go to the far suburbs to find a hotel room.
A second issue is the refusal of many hotel/motel operators to accept people relying of FEMA reimbursement who cannot provide a room security deposit. Representatives of the Texas Hotel/Motel Association says that many of their members feel like they got burned in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita when they suffered room damages and were not reimbursed by FEMA. No one seems ready to offer a solution to this problem.
The third problem the Hotel/Motel program has experienced is that most of the rooms in the downtown area were taken up by utility crews from out of town. But that problem should be diminishing now as power is retored and the number of crews falls off.
It is in everyone’s interest to get folks out of the Hotel/Motel Program and into the rent voucher program. From the standpoint of the survivors, getting into an apartment will help them preserve their maximum FEMA benefits for use for housing repairs. The current limit is $28,800 per household. Every dollar that FEMA spends housing a family in a motel will come out of this maximum benefit.