Katrina recovery: new push to help small landlords

Wednesday, December 17th 2008, 6:44 pm
By: News 9

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) -- An $849 million Hurricane Katrina recovery program hobbled by red tape and the national credit crunch will seek to issue rebuilding money directly to small landlords without the involvement of banks, officials said Wednesday.
   The Louisiana Small Rental Program was designed to restore 18,000 properties, but has distributed only 433 grants so far. The program had required banks to release rebuilding loans to small landlords, who then applied for reimbursement grants through the program.
   The owners of shotgun homes and cottages that kept rent cheap in New Orleans for generations found it virtually impossible to obtain those recovery loans needed for rebuilding after the devastating 2005 storm. The credit crunch only exacerbated the problem as financial institutions tightened lending requirements.
   Beset with a shortage of affordable housing in New Orleans, especially after demolition began on public housing projects, state officials were pressed to get the rental program funding flowing.
   Under the new guidelines, applicants will now be able to receive direct funding if they meet inspection requirements and use a qualified contractor.
   "When coupled with the current national economic crisis, it was clear that we had to make major changes to get money in the hands of landlords," said Paul Rainwater, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority.
   The Associated Press reported in November that not a single financial lender recommended by the program was still issuing the loans. Meanwhile, the housing shortage in New Orleans has contributed to a 40 percent spike in rents, pushing the federal government to distribute $28 million a month in rental aid to hurricane victims.
   The LRA is the state's flagship agency for recovery from Katrina and Rita, the other hurricane that walloped the area in 2005. Its program is intended to pay for rebuilding storm-damaged property as long as landlords rent the units at below-market rates.
   The overhaul of such programs usually requires approval of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds the effort.
   Rainwater said changes announced Wednesday will not require HUD approval.
   HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan confirmed Wednesday that the change "doesn't rise to a level" that would require further HUD review. Sullivan said the program still complies with rules that specify low-income residents must benefit from the effort.
   HUD had expressed concern that giving money directly to landlords could duplicate the benefits of the $10.3 billion Louisiana Road Home program. Many New Orleans landlords live in a portion of their building and have applied to the Road Home, which gives money directly to homeowners.
   Rainwater said he expected rental program funding to become available in the first quarter of 2009, but acknowledged it could take longer to establish.
   The proposal was made at a board meeting of the LRA. Though the board does not have the authority to block the proposal, members called for a market study to ensure continuing demand for the rentals in New Orleans.
   Homeless advocates in attendance said a traditional market study could be misleading, because the lower-income renters who would take advantage of the program have been unable to finance their return to the city. Homelessness in New Orleans has nearly doubled since Katrina.
   "A lot of our current market is displaced," said Jessica Venegas, a housing manager with UNITY of Greater New Orleans. "We can't say that there's not a need."