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The Miami Herald
November 13, 2005 Sunday

Problem: Housing homeless;
FEMA trailers are one way to provide housing for those left homeless by Hurricane Wilma. But many say trailers may not be the best way and perhaps rent vouchers should be considered.


With 3,000 Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers coming to Florida to help Hurricane Wilma evacuees, some housing advocates are questioning whether the trailers are the best way to handle lodging for the newly homeless.

FEMA travel trailers and mobile home parks have been criticized as isolating for the storm victims and costly for the government.

Some of the FEMA trailer parks have had issues with poverty, unemployment and crime.

''We do not support the creation of FEMAvilles or trailer ghettos,'' said Conrad Egan, CEO of the National Housing Conference, which wants the government to provide evacuees with housing vouchers. Vouchers are government payments to a private landlord on behalf of an evacuee.

But local leaders say that given Broward's tight situation -- expensive rent, thousands of storm-damaged homes and apartment buildings, and an approaching tourist season -- trailers and mobile homes may be the best the county can do for now.

''If I had my druthers, apartments would be the housing of choice, but there are so few available in the county to lease,'' said Joe Kocy, who oversees housing issues for Broward County.

Broward doesn't know the number of Wilma's newly homeless, but more than 4,000 apartments, condominiums, mobile homes, houses and businesses were rendered ``unsafe.''

Kocy said he's especially worried about housing because this is the tourist season, when snowbirds migrate to Florida, gobbling up available apartments.

While the county has 45 pages of apartment listings on its website, most agree that list is not enough for many evacuees still living with family, friends or in shelters. The Broward County Housing Authority has no vacancies.

But housing advocates are lobbying for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to beef up its housing voucher program, saying vouchers are a quicker way to find housing for the displaced. In addition, vouchers make rent more affordable and are cheaper than new construction. Vouchers can be used wherever landlords accept them.

After Hurricane Andrew and 1994's Northridge, Calif., earthquake, the federal government issued extra housing vouchers for the newly homeless victims.

But this time around, HUD says it does not have the money to disperse additional housing vouchers for Hurricane Wilma victims, saying FEMA is responsible for emergency shelter assistance.

''FEMA has its housing program and HUD has its own housing program,'' HUD spokeswoman Donna White said. ``That's just the way it is.''

Barbara Sard, director of housing policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said she thinks trailers are useful when they are at the property of a homeowner whose house has been damaged. But she is concerned when trailers are lumped together in villages.

Experts point to Punta Gorda, ravaged by Hurricane Charley last year, which now has a trailer park where evacuees still live. Dubbed FEMAville, the camp of white trailer homes has caused concern among many.

''In the aftermath of various hurricanes, FEMA has built trailers and social conditions have deteriorated and people are living there a long time,'' Sard said.

In Pembroke Pines, FEMA is setting up 58 units at C.B. Smith Park. Markham Park in Sunrise and Topeekeegee Yugnee Park in Hollywood are other places approved for use as trailer parks
The mobile homes and travel trailers are small.

The travel trailers are 8 by 25 feet. The mobile homes are 15 by 50 feet. Every 30 to 60 days, the trailer and mobile home dwellers must get recertified for aid. Travel trailers are designed as living space for up to three people. The mobile homes can house up to five people.

While FEMA doesn't offer housing vouchers, they do offer cash ''rental assistance.'' It's dispersed on an as-needed basis. FEMA will offer to pay up to $1,500 monthly, twice the market rate for Broward.

Those who get rental assistance can get help up to 18 months, depending on the need. FEMA will spend up to $27,200 total on housing. After that, victims are on their own for housing payments.

FEMA says it would like to get evacuees into rentals if possible.

''For some reason, the media has glommed onto trailers, but trailers are the last resort,'' FEMA spokesman Ricardo Zuniga said. ``We are not going to force people into a trailer.''

Charles Elsesser, an attorney with Florida Legal Services, said that vouchers and trailers are both good. He said that after Andrew, vouchers were given out, but people couldn't find housing right away. Hurricane Andrew destroyed 25,524 homes.

Trailers are good to house evacuees until new housing is built, Elsesser said.

Vouchers also can help evacuees cope with additional costs if their old apartments are rebuilt but at a higher monthly rent.

Elsesser has concerns with FEMA's rental assistance cash program because it lasts at most 18 months, then people are on their own. Some people may not have enough stability at that point to afford their own place.

Since the storm destroyed her apartment, Elia Elisma, 35, has lived in American Red Cross shelters with her two daughters, ages 10 and 6.

Her oldest daughter has sickle cell anemia and has fallen sick while staying in the shelter.

''I just don't want to stay here anymore,'' said Elisma, who lives on a cot in a gymnasium at McNicol Middle School in Hollywood. ``I would take a trailer. I just want out.''


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