Thursday, November 30, 2006

FEMA Ordered to Restore Evacuees’ Housing Aid

The New York Times
FEMA Ordered to Restore Evacuees’ Housing Aid

FEMA has to restore housing assistance and pay back rent to thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees who had been deemed ineligible for long-term housing assistance, a federal judge ruled yesterday.

The judge, Richard J. Leon of Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, wrote that the agency also had to improve an appeals process that evacuees had long said was confusing, contradictory and amounted to an arbitrary denial of help.

“It is unfortunate, if not incredible, that FEMA and its counsel could not devise a sufficient notice system to spare these beleaguered evacuees the added burden of federal litigation to vindicate their constitutional rights,” Judge Leon wrote.

The suit was brought by Acorn, a housing advocacy group that runs the Katrina Survivors Association. Michael Kirkpatrick, a lawyer with Public Citizen who represented Acorn, said that as many as 11,000 families could be affected based on numbers that the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided in court papers.

A spokesman for the agency, Aaron Walker, said it had not decided whether to seek a stay of the decision.

Last spring, the agency began notifying thousands of families given emergency shelter that they did not qualify for long-term help with rent and utility payments. That surprised many families who had been given housing vouchers valid for a year.

For months, families who had lost everything struggled to understand why they had been rejected and how to appeal that decision.

In a process that Judge Leon called Kafkaesque, families received notification letters with “reason codes” instead of actual reasons, were given different information each time they called the agency help line or found that the agency had erroneously determined that their house had “insufficient damage” or that someone else in their household (often a roommate) had already applied for assistance.

Mayor Bill White of Houston, where many evacuees fled from the Gulf Coast, was so outraged that he sent building inspectors to New Orleans to certify that the evacuees’ houses were uninhabitable.

“Some families were told, ‘Reason for denial: Other,’ and there’s no explanation for what ‘other’ means,” Mr. Kirkpatrick said.

Some families received two letters with two different codes.

The judge said that the lack of clarity deprived evacuees of their rights of due process, pointing out that the agency had conceded that thousands of families had been incorrectly ruled ineligible.

In a statement after the decision, Mr. Walker of FEMA continued defending the process, saying the agency had given applicants 60 days to appeal and had listed the requirements.

“Additionally,” Mr. Walker wrote, “FEMA established a team dedicated to handling appeals on an expedited basis and initiated calls to applicants in an effort to help them understand what documentation was needed to process their case.”

The transfers of families from emergency housing to long-term help began last spring. Mayor White repeatedly persuaded the agency to delay evictions while it reviewed each family’s file.

The families who managed to stay in apartments financed by the agency until the end of August are entitled to the reinstatement of rent payments and reimbursement for three months’ back rent, the judge said.

All families deemed ineligible, no matter when, will receive more thorough explanations of the reasons and how to appeal their cases.