Rental aid for Katrina victims extended

The federal government is providing six more months of rental assistance to thousands of families affected by the 2005 hurricanes, allowing them extra time to reach self-sufficiency or to get into other housing aid programs.

About 31,400 families have continued receiving federal help paying rent as part of a disaster housing program that was set to expire March 1. The extension was touted by an aide to President Barack Obama as a sign of a “new direction” after his predecessor was heavily criticized for its response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Congress appropriated $85 million in vouchers for those who would still need federal aid after the program ended.

But U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan said Friday the Bush administration had begun moving a “very small share” of households — primarily, the elderly and the disabled — to the voucher program before leaving office. But, he said no contact had been made with a large number of families when Donovan arrived at HUD several weeks ago.

He said that left the Obama administration with no choice but to allow a six-month transition — one that will extend two days past the four-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina — to allow the estimated 13,500 families expected to be eligible for vouchers time to sign up and others time to make it without government subsidies.

“I want to emphasize that this is a signal of a new direction in the Gulf, a commitment that President Obama has to ensure that, particularly during these difficult economic times that we find ourselves in, that we are not leaving vulnerable families at risk of displacement or homelessness with really crushing levels of payments that they would need to make all of a sudden on March 1,” Donovan told reporters on a conference call.

Donovan is expected to visit the region in early March.

State officials and fair housing advocates had pushed for more time, saying there is a lack of affordable housing in the region and particularly in New Orleans. Most of the city’s occupied housing was damaged or destroyed by Katrina’s flooding. Rents soared after the storm and officials say rents are still too high for some families to cover completely on their own.

The Bush administration last month refused a two-year extension of disaster housing benefits requested by the state, citing the voucher program and noting that about $500 million had already been spent under the disaster housing program to help storm-displaced families. The six-month transition announced Friday falls short of the one-year extension of benefits the state had asked the Obama administration for. But Louisiana’s hurricane recovery chief, Paul Rainwater, said it will provide time to get more affordable housing units on line and to work with nonprofits and develop a plan to help families who might still need help come Sept. 1.

Laura Tuggle, managing attorney of the housing law unit at New Orleans Legal Assistance, said an extra six months should be enough for most families.

Disaster aid has helped elderly and disabled residents on fixed incomes, as well as families struggling to make ends meet and, in some cases, still trying to rebuild storm-damaged houses, she said. Tuggle cited at least three people who work in her office and have needed help with rents.

Developer Neal Morris said work wrapped just last week on a new, 36-unit development for low-income elderly residents in New Orleans’ Bywater district. He said signs are up advertising the complex and calls are coming in from prospective renters.