Katrina Evacuees to Lose Housing, Utility Vouchers

Thousands of Hurricane Katrina refugees now living in Houston may no longer get federal aid for housing. Officials for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) say many evacuees are no longer eligible for housing and utility vouchers. Madeleine Brand speaks with Houston Mayor Bill White about how the elimination of the voucher program will affect Katrina victims.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Some Hurricane Katrina evacuees in Houston and other cities are getting some bad news this week. FEMA will stop paying for their housing. The agency says tens of thousands of families are no longer eligible. The news comes as a surprise to many of them. It was understood the housing assistance would last a year. The news also surprised many city officials who now have to figure out how to help these families. Bill White is the mayor of Houston, and he's one of those city officials now coping with this news. And he's here now.

Welcome to the program.

Mayor BILL WHITE (Houston, Texas): It's great to be with you.

BRAND: Well, what was your reaction when you heard this news?

Mayor WHITE: It seemed to me like it didn't make any sense. We know that we have almost 100,000 people here that are in apartments, that we arranged it at FEMA's request. They were largely the working poor in New Orleans. And when FEMA said that they had calculated one out of every four was in ineligible for assistance, it made no sense.

BRAND: How did they make that decision? What were their criteria?

Mayor WHITE: That is a little unclear. We know there are people there who they say don't need housing assistance because they're being provided housing already. So, you know, that's a Catch-22, that if you're being provided housing by a FEMA reimbursed program, you're ineligible because you don't have a housing need. It was just a computer coding error.

BRAND: I understand you actually went so far as to send people to New Orleans to take pictures of these houses to prove to FEMA that, indeed, they were destroyed.

Mayor WHITE: Exactly. And they found that many of the people that had been determined to be ineligible, their houses and apartments were condemned, due to be, you know, just scraped off the face of the earth. Or that there was no electricity, or that there was somebody living in an apartment, where somebody had previously rented.

BRAND: So about 25,000 families in your city are now ineligible. Is that right?

Mayor WHITE: Well, it be about 25,000 people. So I talked to the director of FEMA, and I met with senior officials at FEMA here in Houston. And they committed to spending a couple of weeks going through that list and scrubbing that list to try to identify mistakes. Of course, people actually got notices of ineligibility, so many people are out there, don't know what's going to happen next in life.

BRAND: What will you do? And what will the city do if, indeed, thousands of people are now without any housing assistance?

Mayor WHITE: It's inconceivable to me that this great country would send Americans back to big tent shelters and Red Cross shelters, some, you know, nine or 10 months after the tragedy. Obviously, this should not go on indefinitely. But it should go on for long enough so that people who are able bodied can get back on their feet and get a job. Then the housing assistance should be cut off. But we haven't reached that time yet.

BRAND: Well, now FEMA says that it agreed to provide housing assistance for up to one year, and that it's almost a year. It's been about nine months. So how long do you think that this should go on? And they also say it's not fair to the taxpayer to continue providing this support.

Mayor WHITE: All in all, Congress has appropriated 70, 80 billion dollars of assistance. We probably have half or more of the renters in the devastated area in New Orleans living here. We have spent less than one percent of that on the housing needs of these individuals. I don't think it's a matter of money. I think it's a matter of spending the money that has been appropriated wisely.

BRAND: Bill White is the mayor of the City of Houston.

Thank you for joining us.

Mayor WHITE: It's been wonderful.

BRAND: We'll hear FEMA's response to the Houston housing issue next week.

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