A housing crisis, end of temporary trailers is pushing Ida survivors out: 'There's nothing here'
For almost two years now, Chasity Smith has lived in what she’s called “Camper City.”
Located at Rebecca Plantation, a plot of land off of US-90 E in Terrebonne Parish, the site consists of nearly 100 state-owned trailers that were only meant to be lived in temporarily a handful of months after Hurricane Ida.
Smith shares a trailer with her daughter and granddaughter, and the conditions are rough. There’s a huge dip in the camper’s flooring due to water damage, and she has to secure the trailer’s propane tank with a chain and lock to keep it from being stolen like it has been before.
It’s been her only affordable housing option since the Category 4 hurricane hit in August 2021 and totaled her family’s home in Dulac. She couldn’t even get Section 8 vouchers back in May because the federally-supported program’s phone line was overwhelmed with callers.
Now she’s being told to leave her only housing option. The Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness temporary housing program was seen as a success after it was put together in a matter of weeks to house thousands of Ida survivors at a time when FEMA’s temporary housing wouldn’t be available for months. But officials announced in the spring that the state-run temporary trailers would no longer be available after May 31, and residents needed to find other housing options.
Smith said she’s scared of the unknown and the risk of becoming homeless.
“We're just existing back here. It's really sad. I don't want a handout at all,” Smith said. “I want to be helped. I want to be guided in the right direction for help.”
GOHSEP officials have since said that no one in a state trailer is going to be kicked out, but the deadline has caused a lot of stress and anxiety for those still in the program.
Since the program’s end, only 300 of the more than 1,500 families have moved out.
The program had tried to help people get out quicker by providing each household a case manager — someone to help find them housing options ahead of that May 31 deadline. But Smith and other residents who spoke to WWNO/WRKF said the help has been limited, often just phone calls and emails asking for plans to move out instead of helping them find housing.
GOHSEP executive director Casey Tingle said that he was sympathetic to the difficulties that residents are facing and is taking feedback seriously that people have with their case managers.
“We'll be working with our vendor (case management companies) to ensure that we're providing the right level of responsiveness,” Tingle said.
But the biggest challenge for case managers has been finding affordable housing options for residents, GOHSEP officials said.
A one-bedroom apartment in Houma can now go for an average of $1,000 a month, according to housing sites such as Zillow.com and Apartments.com. The Office of Housing and Urban Development’s Fair Market Rent rates show that in Terrebonne Parish, fair market value rates for a two-bedroom apartment have increased by about $100 in the last three years.
Tingle and GOHSEP officials have acknowledged that the affordable housing crisis has played a significant role in getting people back on their feet after Ida. They have even sent an appeal to FEMA, asking that the federal agency provide more temporary housing assistance now that the state program has shut down. In the appeal, officials attached a letter from a Terrebonne Parish resident who said the cost of living has increased so much — utility expenses, for example, have risen by $700 in two years — that they can only afford to keep their head above water instead of recovering.
Edith Nevis, a resident at the Bayou Gardens Apartments in Houma, said her rent after Hurricane Ida increased from $725 a month to $950 a month. The rent hike has forced many of her neighbors to leave.
“At first when I was told of the new rent, it was shocking because it was a big jump,” Nevis said, who added that she understood the increase was needed to pay for post-Ida repairs, and the rent hike wasn’t as bad as other apartments around town.
Tammy Esponge, the executive of the Apartment Association of Greater New Orleans, an affiliate of the Apartment Association of Louisiana, said that these rent increases are because of added costs from increased insurance rates, rebuilding materials, meeting insurance deductibles for damages from Hurricane Ida and increased staff salaries for rebuilding.
“Property owners say that they’ve seen insurance increase over 300%,” Esponge said.
For most people, Tingle said, it’s more affordable to move somewhere else than to stay in the bayou parishes. But the fact that there isn’t enough housing in general is also a problem.
The Louisiana Housing Corporation’s website for rental properties in Terrebonne Parish only listed seven complexes in the parish, with five restricted to elderly or low-income residents.
The parish’s only two public housing complexes, Bayou Towers with 300 rental units and Senator Circle with 217 rental units, were both condemned. Department of Housing and Urban Development officials said estimates to rebuild will take years.
For those looking to buy a home, the housing stock has decreased as well, according to data from the Louisiana REALTORS, a trade association. The housing stock in Assumption, Lafourche, St. Mary and Terrebonne parishes has decreased from 709 in June 2020 to 668 in May 2023. The deepest drop was a year after Hurricane Ida, when housing stock dropped to 429 in June 2022.
Louisiana REALTORS CEO Norman Morris said that the housing market in Louisiana is favorable for potential homeowners, but new flood insurance policies from FEMA that have drawn lawsuits from the state and a lack of property insurance options have kept residents from being able to own homes.
“The housing market is strong. But you hear the stories where an individual has down payment money, they got everything in order with their loan, and they worked everything out,” Morris said. “And the next thing is they go to the insurance carrier or the local agent, but the price is so high, they can't afford it. And so that's probably the biggest negative right now.”
Terrebonne Parish Councilman Carl Harding said the parish needs to do more to incentivize more housing development to bring down prices. But that’s a long-term fix for a problem with dramatic short-term needs.
Families have already left the parish due to the dire housing situation after the storm. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population in Terrebonne Parish decreased by over 4,000 residents between 2020 and 2022. Harding said he believes that there’s even more people who have left but haven’t been documented.
“We're losing out across the board,” Harding said. “It's gonna be difficult. If we don't just address the housing issue, and we don't address mental health, we don't address drug abuse, things that are across the board that make a community thrive, we’re losing an opportunity to perhaps keep people here.”
The local school district’s infrastructure will also take years to recover. The district’s master rebuilding plan outlined how schools down the bayou, such as Upper Little Caillou Elementary, are still waiting on FEMA’s approval to be rebuilt. Lacache Middle School has to be completely torn down for reconstruction, so students have had to relocate to a nearby high school for the foreseeable future.
In GOHSEP’s appeal to FEMA, state officials asked the federal agency to extend its temporary housing program into 2024 and keep rent low for temporary housing.
The agency also asked if FEMA can provide potential opportunities to residents in the state program, like paying rent to place residents in available residential properties or place them in a FEMA trailer.
GOHSEP had already asked for an extension for the FEMA program this year, which was approved through Aug. 29.
Tingle said he’s expecting the second extension to be approved any day now.
In the meantime, Smith is still looking for a more permanent home. She’s reaching out to charities that might be able to help her pay rent. And she’s considering leaving the region.
“I definitely don't want to leave Terrebonne Parish, but I definitely feel like there's nothing here in Houma,” Smith said.
But there’s some hope, Smith said. In June, case managers set up a temporary office in an empty trailer on the group site where she lives. She hopes that in-person visits with her case manager — instead of waiting for phone calls and emails — will lead to more help, easier communication, and eventually, a new home.
“I can’t fail,” Smith said. “I owe it to my daughter, my granddaughter and myself.”