(TNS) — Surrounded by grassy fields off a highway in rural South Texas, rows of brand-new mobile homes seem to span as far as the big Texas sky.
All the same color gray with white trim and serial numbers written along the side, almost 2,400 single- and double-wide mobile homes are lined row after row on an old runway at a former naval base in rural Bee County, according to federal data current March 30.
Almost 200 travel trailers also are parked on the property, which is being used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to store temporary housing destined for people across the U.S. who lose homes to disasters.
Although the stockpile sits in Texas Gulf Coast residents’ backyard, it remains unknown exactly how many residents who need housing after Hurricane Harvey could get the units.
Seven months after Harvey caused an estimated $180 billion in damage, only about 6,600 households statewide qualified for state-run temporary housing programs. That represents only 2 percent of almost 372,000 who were deemed eligible for some sort of help from FEMA. This is despite federal and state officials’ promises that new housing program options — including ones to permanently fix homes and repair apartments — would serve as a model for the rest of the nation.
Instead of quickly getting residents into temporary housing, lawmakers and advocates alike have criticized the rollout of the programs, citing delays and eligibility problems. And some housing advocates say there could be another problem: The way the government decides who is eligible to receive certain types of temporary housing could be hurting low-income residents.
“It’s a little mind-blowing when you think people are living in substandard housing, and there’s perfectly good housing somewhere else that’s just sitting empty,” said Ginny Stafford, who runs Mid-Coast Family Services, a nonprofit that provides rental assistance in Victoria.
Texas changes direction
After Harvey, state and federal officials decided to take a different approach to temporary housing than in other recent disasters.
Before Harvey, FEMA traditionally led the way on recovery programs. But in Texas, the state’s General Land Office was put in charge of working with FEMA to manage a handful of temporary housing programs, including one that would fix apartment buildings and another to more permanently repair homes.
Despite officials’ hopes for the new approach, no one has participated in one that would repair apartment buildings, and only 119 households statewide have received more permanent home repairs, according to April 4 data. Another program called the direct lease program, which helps disaster survivors into housing that’s already built, had just 99 participants, according to FEMA.
And while almost 2,600 travel trailers and mobile homes sit empty in Beeville, only about 2,400 Texans have actually received travel trailers or mobile homes so far. By comparison, more than 4,000 households settled into mobile homes six months after flooding in Louisiana in 2016, according to FEMA.
However, Darrell Habisch, a spokesman for FEMA, said all disasters are different and people shouldn’t compare them.
Temporary housing programs usually are the solution of last resort, he said. Instead, the vast majority of people get help from other FEMA programs, including money to repair homes, rental assistance and FEMA-paid hotel rooms.
One program managed by the state that provides limited home repairs has helped more than 11,000 households statewide — about 3 percent of all households approved by FEMA, according to state and federal data.
But housing advocates say FEMA’s qualification requirements could be hurting low-income residents.
That’s because FEMA requires damage to hit a specific dollar threshold for people to qualify for certain programs, said Charlie Duncan, research director for the Austin-based Texas Low Income Housing Information Service.
In Harvey’s aftermath, the government said property owners’ damages must hit at least $17,000 to qualify for certain state-run temporary housing programs.
That could mean, for example, that even if a home was unlivable, the homeowner may not qualify for certain temporary housing programs if FEMA said the loss was valued at less than $17,000. A trailer valued at $25,000 could sustain $15,000 in damages and not qualify.
“By setting these arbitrary thresholds like $17,000 ... what ends up happening is that disproportionately cuts out low-income people,” Duncan said.
Earlier this year, Duncan analyzed data from the state that showed on average, FEMA deemed the value of low-income people’s losses to be less than that of people with higher incomes. To make things more fair, Duncan recommends government officials also factor in residents’ income when deciding how much people were impacted.
A FEMA spokesman didn’t explain why $17,000 was picked as the threshold but said residents who don’t qualify for certain temporary housing programs could be eligible for other help ranging from rental assistance to FEMA-paid hotel rooms.
But in coastal regions battered by Harvey, many low-income residents are still struggling to repair homes or replenish savings accounts drained during evacuations.
In Bloomington, a rural Victoria County community where Harvey’s winds sent trees crashing onto houses and ripped off roofs, Petra Longoria, 78, still hasn’t returned home.
She was living with her Corgi mix, Princess, in a mobile home on her daughter’s property until Harvey ripped apart the roof and shattered a window, soaking her ceiling, walls and furniture. But because the home was owned by her daughter — and was the second home on the property — FEMA wouldn’t cover the repairs, she said.
Her daughter, Blanca Longoria Wallace, went to FEMA’s recovery center in Victoria three times in an attempt to fight the claim — to no avail, said Wallace. The mother and daughter were told it would take $13,000 to repair the mobile home — money that has been scarce to come by after the family spent their savings evacuating after Harvey.
“As far as we’re concerned, we didn’t get the help,” she said.
Marina reports on local government for the Victoria Advocate. She may be reached at email@example.com or 361-580-6511.
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