One year later: Homeowner Assistance Program in full swing

Greg Fischer Editor-in-chief
gfischer@weeklycitizen.com
Director of Homeowner Programs Jeff Haley with the Office of Community Development sat down with the Weekly Citizen August 2, 2017 to give a flood update.

THE ISSUE: Homeowners assistance has many people confused. The program is more clearly explained by disaster recovery manager Jeff Haley.

LOCAL IMPACT: Ascension Parish residents are still not back in their homes since the flood. Many of them have still not applied for assistance.

Unlike the ralliers in Charlottesville, Va. last weekend, the Great Flood of 2016 did not discriminate. And while some Louisianans have by now recovered, many have not.

According to Jeff Haley, director of homeowner programs with Restore Louisiana, the fact is that disaster assistance takes time. The state's disaster experience with Hurricane Katrina helps. The state is still shy $1.3 billion in unmet needs, which is why Gov. Edwards will go back to Washington D.C. in September to try to secure more funding.

Currently the Homeowners Program has funding to serve 37,000 homes. It is being done in phases due to Federal stipulations such as homeowners' income, elderly, disability, location inside or outside the floodplain and whether or not they reside in the 10 most impacted parishes, of which Ascension is one. However, in all 51 parishes were impacted.

"We have about 37,000 people we estimate are in Phase 1-6," Haley said. "And we budgeted the money that we have can serve all of them. So, it doesn't really matter if you're in Phase 1 or 6. There are people outside of the 37,000, which is why we keep going to Congress and recognizing that we have this $2 billion dollar shortfall."

After a 45-minute one-on-one interview with Haley, this next chunk of numbers appears to be the most telling for what the situation looks like for thousands of Louisiana homeowners:

"The [total] impacted homes is much higher. There are like 193,000 people that applied to FEMA. 80,000 people were declared not to have what FEMA calls a FEMA verified loss, so then you're down to about 120,000. Out of the 120,000 about 25 percent of them are renters. So that gets us to a number that you've probably heard. We've said there are about 86,000 people that have had a FEMA verified loss that were homeowners. That's our main population that we kind of start with. Out of the 86,000 people though, we then when we were coming up with this budget and 'how are we going to fund this with the money we have?' we then looked at the ones that FEMA declared as 'major' or 'severe' damage versus 'minor' damage. So that drew the 86,000 down smaller. Then we said 'How many out of that had flood insurance or didn't have flood insurance?' And that's where the 37,000 came from. So the 37,000 that we budgeted were folks that we said were homeowners, they definitely had a FEMA verified loss of 'major' or 'severe,' and they didn't have flood insurance. That was the initial pool. But we've encouraged folks--that's why we used that higher number to do this survey because we're using data from FEMA which is nearly a year old. So the survey gives us some cleaner data and let's us see what their unmet need is. It's what our Congressional Delegation needs to be able to go ask for more money."

In fact the survey is what opened up the third additional allocation of $51 million to Phase 1 people who had flood insurance, but still qualify to low to moderate income, elderly or people with disability.

While it may seem obviously unfair to help people who did not have flood insurance, actually the program targets homeowners that were never required to have flood insurance. They lived outside the floodplain and never dreamed they would flood, according to Haley.

Moreover, the area of the floodplain has not changed as of yet. This has to do with a discussion of flood insurance rates increasing as a result of the Great Flood. Haley maintains that it has always been more expensive to carry flood insurance if your home sits within the floodplain.

"They obviously look at severe, repetitive loss, and they look at homes that have never flooded," Haley said.

While this topic is not the area of expertise of Haley, it is an interesting one: What are the laws in place to regulate the cost of flood insurance, if any? It gets a little off subject here, but direct to the Biggert Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 for more info.

Next, as of August 2 the number of individuals who have taken the simple, 10-minute assistance survey was 37,116.

"Some people can do it in five minutes," Haley said. "That's why we encourage people to do it. Whether you think you're eligible or not, it's beneficial. You may be eligible six months from now, so take the survey. If not for you, just for your community. That's the other message. Guys, it just helps! You want to see people that live around you restore their home and it not be blight, because that affects your property value."

Once the homeowner fills out the survey, the program has to do a NEPA environmental review of the site. They do not have to go in the home, according to Haley. They are checking for hazardous waste. This process is expensive, and they have fought not to have to do it.

Just something to look out for. Another thing to be aware of is that the government considers the SBA loan a duplication of benefit (DOB). Haley said that many people are confused or upset that they are not receiving a portion of grant money because of the SBA funding they have already gotten. Haley said that is just how the Federal law operates, and it has been that way for 30 years. Louisiana is not the first state to see disaster.

Last, there are three available solutions. One is program managed, another is homeowner managed and last is simply a reimbursement. Applicants and fund recipients may visit the Office of Community Development - Disaster Recovery Unit located at the Celtic Center in Baton Rouge, personally. Workers are on hand to walk people through the steps. The space features a showroom for the program-managed option with what is considered economy-grade materials and appliances.

For more information visit restore.la.gov, or www.facebook.com/RestoreLA.gov/ or call 866-735-2001.