Thousands of low income Louisiana residents face extreme challenges as they look to recover from the mid-August floods that damaged or destroyed more than 150,000 homes across 20 parishes. As the State of Louisiana and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) work to support the thousands of residents in need of disaster assistance, low income renters who already faced a lack of affordable housing and high housing cost burdens face a disproportionate burden and fewer opportunities for assistance.
The floods caused by heavy rains began August 12th and lasted 3 days, and among the 20 parishes affected was East Baton Rouge Parish, the most populous in the state. Most of the 150,000 homes flooded were rendered uninhabitable. Thousands of individuals and families made homeless by the floods have applied for disaster assistance, including temporary rental assistance. Louisiana was already dealing with tight rental markets, particularly for the lowest income renters. In 2015, the state had a shortage of 107,438 homes available and affordable for extremely low income (ELI) households, those with incomes at or below 30% of area median incomes. With many homes affordable for ELI renters destroyed by the floods and thousands of new low, moderate, and high income households looking for a place to stay, the rental market will tighten further, the number of renters with high cost burdens will climb, and long-term homelessness and housing instability will rise. Because they have the least resources and the fewest options, ELI renters will experience the crisis most acutely.
FEMA and the State of Louisiana are employing a variety of strategies to assist those impacted. FEMA has administered more than $500 million to those in need, the majority of which has gone to rental assistance and home repair. FEMA and the State of Louisiana are providing rental assistance to both renters and homeowners displaced by the disaster. Most of this assistance comes in the form of vouchers, which residents can use to help them pay for rent and, under certain circumstances, stay in a hotel. The voucher program serves residents of assisted housing and HUD-subsidized private properties as well as Housing Choice Voucher holders and other displaced renters and homeowners. While the voucher program is robust, because the floods destroyed so many homes, few apartments are available for the disaster voucher holders to rent. FEMA also plans to provide some residents with mobile homes, which they stress are better than the troubled trailers provided after Katrina, many of which contained high concentrations of formaldehyde. As of September 2, however, just one family had received a mobile home while 1,500 individuals waited in shelters and thousands more stayed in hotels or with relatives or friends. The slowness with which programs such as this have gotten started has left many affected by disaster with limited options.
In addition to rental assistance, FEMA is also providing some homeowners with up to $15,000 through the Shelter at Home program. The Shelter at Home program is intended to help homeowners safely live in their homes while completing necessary repairs, returning to normalcy as quickly as possible. A similar program does not exist for renters, however. Landlords can request small business loans to repair rental units but are under no obligation to do so, leaving many renters forced to find a new place to stay either permanently or temporarily while waiting for their landlords to make the necessary repairs. Without additional assistance or preferences, low income renters will carry a disproportionate share of the burden and the greatest housing instability in the weeks and months to come.