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Flood Recovery: Not-So-Rapid Rehousing

Molly Peterson
Afrika Rone and her daughter were displaced by the 2016 floods. They're still looking for a permanent home, with help from the state's Rapid Rehousing program.

Federal aid helped pay for hotels for thousands of Louisianans after last year's flood. Until May, the short-term program help people find shelter, especially low-income renters. Now a state-managed program is still filling in the gaps, trying to give more permanent homes to families washed out last year — including a single mother in Baton Rouge.

As she looks for another place to live, Afrika Rone looks to impress. Coming out of her brick Brightside apartment, she strikes a pose, then tugs on her marine-blue dress, demure, but trendy, with cut-out shoulders. On her feet are matching blue Keds. There’s not a hair out of place. In her ears are enormous silver hoops. Her smile fights forward, nervously. "Nice to meet you," she says, "thank you for driving."

The waters last August didn't just fill up the place she and her 2-year-old daughter were living in Baton Rouge, they drowned her car, too. Now she depends on others for rides. The bus, friends, and on this day, a reporter in a rental car.

Federal aid helped pay for hotels for thousands of Louisianans after last year's flood. Until the end of May, short-term programs bought people hotel rooms and gave people shelter who needed it, homeowners waiting on work done, people with dogs or mental illness who had trouble finding apartments, and low-income renters.

For a couple hundred of these families, many of whose lives balanced precariously before the flood, a state-managed program is still filling in the gaps, trying to give counseling and more permanent homes to families washed out last year, including a single mother named Afrika in Baton Rouge.

The home she's seeking will be her fifth stop since the flood. Immediately after the waters rose, she stayed with friends. She slept in one shelter, then another, until October. Since the holidays, she was living in Brightside. She almost had the hang of the bus schedule when the bank foreclosed on her current landlord. So, Afrika is starting over, again, with a list of apartment complexes in her hand.

"There's nothing really available, so when you find something you have to get on it," she says. Twenty minutes later, we're in Spanish Town, blocks from the Mississippi, touring a sleek modern complex called The Elysian.

Tight since Katrina, the regional rental market is even tighter now — demand's up, and so's the rent. Big, new managed buildings like this one have saved some room for Rapid Rehousing tenants, for good reason. The state of Louisiana will guarantee fair market rent for Afrika for a year.

The property manager, Ms. Washington, describes the building's perks and shows off brushed steel appliances and faux wood floors.

"Some people put their headboard here, some put it here; it depends on your preference," Washington says. Afrika cocks her head, and imagines the few furnishings she has picked up, in here. "And then most people put their TV and stuff on this side."

Less enthusiastic, Afrika is a hard sell. Applying to many apartment complexes, including this one, costs money she doesn’t have. So she only will do it judiciously, where she really wants to go. She doesn't know the area. She doesn't have reliable childcare — and without reliable transit, she hasn't been able to hold onto a job. The problems seem to pile up, one on the next. "I mean it's hard trying to get everything back together. You got help but you don't got help," she says. "You see what I'm saying?"

When she does have a job, the state will require her to pay half the rent. With one more bedroom than she needs, and at nearly $1,000 a month, this place may be bigger than she can handle.

"I don't know if this is meant for me or not," Afrika says, with a frustrated sigh. "I don't know!"

It may seem straightforward, but decisions like this are hard for her clients, says Addie Duval, the Baton Rouge director of the Rapid Rehousing program for the START Corporation, a private contractor to the state.

"They have to find: Where am I going to shop now? Where is my new bank? Where is my new church?" says Duval.

Disasters rough up some peoples' lives more than others. Four times as many people have come to Duval's counselors as originally planned. As heavy rain and floods happen more frequently in Louisiana, Duval says more vulnerable people aren't fully recovering.

"So, I think people — as it has impacted them more — when smaller things happen, they automatically think of the worst," says Duval.

Afrika says that's true. She obsesses over decisions, but she also has trouble concentrating. On the northern side of Baton Rouge, we check out another apartment within a gated complex by Airline Highway.

Here, too, phones are ringing off the hook. Again, as we have all day, we run into people looking for a place to live.

"What, that's our third person, fourth person? At least I'm not the only one but gol-LY!" she says.

In the front office, Afrika sighs over her paperwork and almost gives up a few times. But she doesn't. Because there's an open apartment, second floor, near the highway. Smaller, and cheaper than the first.

Afrika is practically holding her breath as she steps into a big living room with good light. Soon enough she nods, slowly.

"I like it," she says. "I didn't see nothing I didn't like." 

A bedroom for her, a smaller one for her young daughter. She doesn't know the neighborhood, or the neighbors, but she can see herself here, for a while, steady.

"I knew it was gonna take some time," she says. "But I didn't think it was gonna take this long." 

With her application approved, Afrika is settling in and learning new buses. She's still obsessing on a few topics — her daughter, and how to find a job.

Do you have feedback or a flood-recovery story you'd like to share? We welcome your comments here.

This story was brought to you by the Louisiana Public Radio Partnership, and made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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