(TNS) - Nearly half of the August flood victims surveyed by Louisiana after they got help from Louisiana's house repair program said they didn't return home after the work was done, even though the goal of the effort was to get people back under their own roofs.
The $165 million Shelter at Home program, which, by design, did temporary work on flood-damaged dwellings, has been criticized by some homeowners and public officials, who have questioned its effectiveness and cost. In some cases, program recipients also questioned the quality of the work performed by contractors.
Contracts and invoices from firms involved in the fast-paced construction plan reveal, among other things, that program management accounted for more than 20 percent of Shelter at Home’s costs. That may be a result in part of the management firm’s generous billing rates — for instance, $1,300 per home inspection and $55 an hour charged to the state for call-center employees.
But state officials and the Shelter at Home management insist the program is, nonetheless, saving taxpayers millions of dollars, saying that it's perhaps the least expensive housing program available to flood victims and that it has allowed thousands of people to quickly reoccupy their homes.
"No other program offered the immediate transitional help provided by Shelter at Home," Gov. John Bel Edwards said, adding that the state has learned lessons that would allow for a swifter implementation if needed in the future. "We were determined to help as many families as we possibly could get home as quickly as we could, given the restrictions that hamstring how we can spend FEMA emergency repair dollars."
Shelter at Home was the state's primary response to the housing shortages and massive displacement after devastating floods swamped much of south Louisiana in August.
With almost no affordable rentals available and families crammed into hotel rooms, state officials, along with FEMA, devised a plan to provide temporary repairs that would safely allow people to live in their gutted homes as they moved forward with more permanent renovations.
While the program is managed by the state, the federal government is picking up 90 percent of the cost. In reality, it’s completely financed by the feds, as Louisiana is planning to use a separate federal allocation to cover its share. Edwards hopes it will eventually be dwarfed by a much larger aid package aimed at helping many homeowners make permanent repairs. But state officials are still lobbying the federal government to provide more money for that program.
Generally, recipients of Shelter at Home aid could expect up to $15,000 worth of minor electrical and plumbing repairs, a working bathroom, a kitchen sink, a minifridge, a hot plate, a microwave, and working air conditioning and heating.
About 10,600 homeowners used the program. State officials surveyed almost one-fifth of them — 2,022 people — and found that 46 percent said they had not returned home, despite the repairs.
"That strikes me as an awfully low number. It makes you wonder if they did enough," said Gerard Landry, mayor of Denham Springs, a town that was almost completely inundated in the flood.
But state officials say the survey results do not fully reflect the program’s success. They contend that thousands of recipients otherwise lacking many resources have returned home and recovered more quickly because of the work.
"Even if this percentage offers a full representation of the program, that still means roughly 21,000 people were able to return home either before or within three months in an effort to keep their neighborhoods and communities whole," said Julie Baxter Payer, Edwards' deputy chief of staff.
Will Rachal, chief of staff for the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, said the program had value even for homeowners who didn't move back in right away. In some cases, the replacement of doors and windows may have helped secure homes or prevented their degradation from the elements. Accommodations like working toilets and air conditioning may also have speeded up the pace of work.
'At least make it livable'
But both public officials and some property owners have questioned the quality of the work. Several people interviewed for this story said they had little incentive to move home because the repairs were shoddy and didn’t create livable conditions.
Shelter at Home was modeled after a Hurricane Sandy pilot program called Rapid Repairs, which drew similar complaints about substandard work that sometimes created hazards.
Robert Avriett, 56, of Baker, said he was anxious to return to his flooded home after months of staying at a friend's house. But he said Shelter at Home contractors didn't even give him a front door. He got the standard-issue kitchen sink and hot plate, but no minifridge, even though he requested one. Contractors did nothing to give him working air conditioning and heat. And while he got a working toilet, his bathtub was installed without connecting it to the plumbing. Even if he had had a working shower or bath, he had no walls around it to give him any privacy.
So Avriett didn't move home until several weeks later, after he hired his own contractors to make the house habitable.
"I give it an F. They are not listening to people," Avriett said. "If they'd just given us a little better quality, it would help. I know it's not permanent, but at least make it livable."
Versie Jones and her husband also didn't move back after getting Shelter at Home aid. Instead, they opted to stay longer with Jones’ daughter, who lives more than 25 miles away, until they paid to have more work done.
When the Joneses finally did move back to their still-unfinished home in Baker, a bathroom sink installed by Shelter at Home contractors came crashing down while she was brushing her teeth.
The small porcelain sink appeared to be glued to the wall, she said. And when it shattered on the ground, it sliced open her foot, sending her to the emergency room to get eight staples.
Jones said ultimately the work provided by the state was so poorly done, it actually slowed her return. She said the plumbing was improperly connected, spraying water in every direction when she turned on the bath faucet. And the flimsy front door was improperly hung so that it couldn't be firmly closed.
"All of this stuff they put in my home is a waste. It's all temporary. It's going to go into the garbage," she said. "None of this made anything easier."
But Shelter at Home managers point out that the program has been vital for others. In a testimonial video on the state’s official website, Tammie Jenkins, another recipient, called Shelter at Home a blessing to her family.
"At the end of the day, you're home. This is where I pay my mortgage. This is where I choose to live. This is where I want to be," Jenkins said, displaying the repairs she received. "I'm so thankful, and I'm so blessed, because without Shelter at Home, I would probably still be with my relatives."
U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, who has emerged as one of the most vocal critics of FEMA and the state's disaster response, said the Shelter at Home concept had potential, but "the implementation and execution was a failure."
Part of the problem, he said, is that the temporary fixes end up being ripped out quickly when homeowners begin their own reconstruction, which meant that taxpayers shelled out for work that was often short-lived, or worse.
But Graves’ bigger concern is that the program has been wasteful, serving to pad the pockets of government contractors at the expense of the public.
"Contractors are walking away with mounds of cash, while homeowners are left with pieces of plastic," he said.
In a letter he wrote to outgoing FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, Graves said he believes at least half of the program’s funding was going to administrative costs.
"While the program approves up to $15,000 per home, the reality is that the average home is estimated to have only $7,000 or less of actual work done on that home," he wrote. In an interview, Graves said that number was derived from his conversations with subcontractors involved in the program.
Edwards has said the state is prevented by federal restrictions from providing lump sums for home improvements to flood victims, as many have requested. He has urged Graves and other members of Congress to push for changes to help expedite aid for disaster victims.
Who's getting paid?
In total, the state hired nine general contractors to handle the rapid-construction needs of thousands of victims. Those contractors, in turn, hired 106 subcontractors. All of the construction is overseen by a single program management firm: AECOM, a company that will take in an estimated $34.4 million for overseeing Shelter at Home.
AECOM, a Los Angeles-based Fortune 500 company, oversaw the contractors and case managers, processed recipient eligibility, was in charge of outreach and customer relations, and provided home inspections, among other duties.
For every home that received Shelter at Home repairs, AECOM billed the state at least $795 for its initial inspection and another $545 for a final inspection to ensure the work was complete. AECOM billed the state $408 anytime a homeowner was a no-show — something that happened almost 500 times in one month, according to invoices reviewed by The Advocate.
AECOM billed the state for thousands of hours worked by its employees — ranging from program managers at $260 an hour to customer-service representatives at $55 an hour. As described in the AECOM contract, those representatives are call-center workers, for which the company billed the state $363,593 in a single month for 6,609 hours of work.
The company billed $65 an hour for "clerical/administrative assistants." Their duties, according to the contract, included "providing routine office functions and support services for management and staff."
The rate billed for clerical workers is almost twice what AECOM billed the federal government for an administrative assistant position in a current facilities management contract, according to the publicly available contract found on the General Services Administration Website.
In the first month of operations, the state also reimbursed AECOM for more than $43,000 of supplies, including $19,000 for iPads and $11,000 for computers.
"With the speed and rapidity that this program was set up for, that pushed a little more toward the premium price," said Lael Holton, AECOM's planning manager. He noted that the prices and scope of work were both vetted by FEMA and the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
GOHSEP spokesman Mike Steele confirmed that the "emergency pricing" was tied to the scope and seriousness of the disaster, which required widespread construction work at breakneck speed. Steele also pointed out that AECOM had the lowest hourly rate submitted by companies seeking the emergency contract. But AECOM also submitted the highest unit cost proposals, which assumes costs for construction items.
AECOM's cut was separately billed from the general contractors. The cap for the billable items per house was $15,000, but state officials said the average invoice came in at less than $11,000.
Contractors billed the state on a standard per-item basis, with overhead costs built into the price. For example, the state was billed $850 for every kitchen sink.
Testing a central HVAC unit cost $743, and the cost to repair one was $1,350. The cost of cleaning and sanitizing a house, which some homeowners said was as simple as contractors mopping the floors, was $1.59 per square foot. At that rate, a 1,500-square-foot house cost the state $2,385 to clean. Cleaning the bathtub cost an extra $170.
Holton, of AECOM, stressed that Shelter at Home is much more cost-effective than many other emergency housing solutions provided by the government. Mobile homes provided by FEMA, for instance, cost upward of $130,000 each. And hotel and rental reimbursements cost thousands of dollars each month, while often keeping people farther away from their communities.
"We saved the federal government quite a bit of money on this, and we saved the Louisiana taxpayers quite a bit of money," he said.
©2017 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.
Visit The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. at www.theadvocate.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.