Thursday, September 8, 2005

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Helping the homeless from Katrina

Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution relays an excellent policy proposal from the University of Virginia's Ed Olsen on how best to find housing for those displaced by Katrina. I'm reprinting it below in its entirety:

By Edgar O. Olsen

What the people displaced by Hurricane Katrina need most now is housing. Hundreds of thousands of families are now living in temporary housing and shelters, sometimes little more than tents, throughout the south central region. These families cannot wait for new housing to be built.

Fortunately, new construction is not necessary to solve the immediate problem. Enormous numbers of vacant units in the region are available for immediate occupancy by families with the ability to pay rent — and a simple expansion of HUD’s largest housing program would provide even the poorest families with the means to rent these units.

The rental vacancy rate in the United States is at a historically high level. For all metropolitan areas as a group, it is over 10 percent. The largest metropolitan areas in the south central region have some of the highest vacancy rates – 15.6 percent in Houston, 14.4 percent in San Antonio, 12.8 percent in Dallas, 12.2 percent in Memphis, 13.1 percent in Birmingham and 18.5 percent in Atlanta. Vacancy rates for smaller metropolitan areas and non-metropolitan areas are also at historically high levels. In short, many rental units in the south central region and throughout the country are available for immediate occupancy by people with the ability to pay the rent.

Fortunately, no new federal program is required to match families suddenly needing housing with an existing stock of vacant apartments. The United States government already operates a program that would enable low-income families to pay the rent for these units. The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program currently serves about two million families throughout the country. It enables participants to occupy privately owned units renting for up to, and somewhat above, the local median rent. Enormous numbers of vacant units could be occupied immediately by families with these housing vouchers.

Congress could show its bi-partisan resolve to respond to this emergency housing crisis by acting promptly to authorize a sufficient number of additional Section 8 vouchers to serve the poorest hurricane victims.

Since many victims have had to travel quite a distance to obtain temporary shelter and many will have to move further from New Orleans to obtain permanent housing within a reasonable time, these vouchers should be available to any public housing agency in the country to serve families displaced by the hurricane. To avoid delays in getting assistance to these families, the vouchers should be allocated to housing agencies on a first-come-first-served basis and any low-income family whose previous address was in the most affected areas should be deemed eligible. We should not take the time to determine the condition of the family’s previous unit before granting a voucher.

Getting the poorest displaced families into permanent housing is an urgent challenge. It requires bi-partisan support for Congress to act promptly, quick action by HUD to generate simple procedures for administering these special vouchers, and housing agencies in areas of heavy demand to add temporary staff to handle the influx of applications for assistance. Even with the best efforts of all parties, the proposed solution will not get all the low-income families displaced by Hurricane Katrina into permanent housing tomorrow. However, it will be much faster than building new housing for them. And it will show them that the federal government cares about their plight and is working to do what it can to help.

I'd like to think that there actually would be bipartisan support for such a proposal. As Megan McArdle points out, "Section 8 vouchers, while certainly not perfect, have been a big improvement over the failed government housing projects they replaced." They use Republican-friendly means to achieve Democrat-friendly ends. And, since Congress is currently not doing much of use with regard to Katrina, maybe they could act on this. And this proposal is much better than some of the other ideas that are floating around. [That's a bad, bad pun--ed.]

Let's see if someone notices.

Assignment to Mickey Kaus: what would be the secondary and tertiary effects of such a proposal?

posted by Dan on 09.08.05 at 02:33 PM


Sounds great. What about jobs, food, housing, and duration? Also, what part of those apartments are fancy apartment homes in the 'burbs (with rents above what HUD would likely pay, and no public transit worth a darn.)

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 09.08.05 at 02:33 PM [permalink]

er...I said "housing" wehn I meant "utilities". This is abased on my experience in the St Vincent De Paul socirty, where folks are getting HUD assistance, but have no money to put to their gas or electric bills.

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 09.08.05 at 02:33 PM [permalink]

A sensible proposal? With this Congress and President?

Guess I'm from Missouri now: show me.

posted by: Doug on 09.08.05 at 02:33 PM [permalink]

Just heard Sarbanes talking about it on the Senate floor a few hrs ago on C-Span. Trouble is many owners are wary of allowing section 8 recipients into their properties. We'll see how this turns out.

Hopefully the admin will get a better handle on adequately supervising the flow of funds. There are new stories floating around about the 9-11 small business loans. The banks were on an honor system to ensure that the loans they approved, that were backed by the govt, were indeed being used by businesses wiped out by the attacks. Turns out that a S. Dakota radio station was able to get a below market rate loan because of reduced revenue from the fund but a shop in Manhattan that was actually flattened could not.

If I'm not mistaken, like FEMA, the Bush admin used the Small Business Ad as a crony dumping ground. Wonder if this lack of oversight is related??

Why can't Bush fire Brown? Because the next in line, and the guy under him, are even less qualified cronies who have no disaster or even administrative experience. The merely worked on Bush/Cheney election campaigns.

Question:::: Why do republican admins choose FEMA as a crony dumping ground?? Reagan and Bush 1 also did this. I mean, why not the Post Office or the Commerce Dept?? Why FEMA? And, especially, why FEMA even after 9/11???

posted by: mprice on 09.08.05 at 02:33 PM [permalink]

In the supplemental appropriation now moving through Congress there are just under $28 billion that could be used for housing assistance, $5.5 of which could be spent by other agencies doing things FEMA asks them to do and then being reimbursed from the FEMA DRF. The catch is that this money can also be used for a great many other necessary things, including medical care and repair of housing disaster recipients own now.

I don't know enough about Sec. 8 or FEMA regs to say if Olsen's idea could be implemented without amending one or the other (hunch: HUD would be a bigger problem than FEMA), but apart from that there is a real competition for resources shaping up.

posted by: Zathras on 09.08.05 at 02:33 PM [permalink]

"Criticism of FEMA was even voiced at Tuesday's Cabinet meeting of all places. While all other Cabinet members were silent, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Alphonso Jackson blew the whistle. He said HUD's readiness to send emergency housing to New Orleans was thwarted by FEMA's red tape."

posted by: charlie on 09.08.05 at 02:33 PM [permalink]

Would Hyde Park-Kenwood_Woodlawn take Section 8 tenants? NO!(You are probably to ignorant to know that Woodlawn and Kenwood were once thriving African-American neighborhoods). The reason being class and race.

The idea would have some merit if you can put all the people from New Orleans together across class and race lines. But that is unrealistic as those with money can go where they want. Section 8 for the very poor will only move the slums of New Orleans to the slums of ?? This is the real problem.

What you are really confronted w/ is the US government is going to have to go back into social engineering on a triage level. You are going to have to take the elderly from familiy support systems. Educate the children so they can obtain work that can support a middleclass life style by Louisiana standards. Educate, train and find middle class work for those 18 - 40. The people whom are 40 to 65 are even more problematic. In our current economy it is almost impossible for people of this age regardless of skills or race to find work of any kind because they are seen as nothing but long-term costs.

Given then that most of these people are African-American, whom most people in the country are scared of in person and scapegoat, it is going to be a political nightmare to do anything. The reason is there are far more white people whom could use these same housing, jobs and training programs. Our country is unwilling to do anything for them and now you are going to give the Republicans Nixon's Southern strategy all over again. Talking about Section 8 without doing anything else is just one more example of America unable to deal with its history of racism and its aftermath for the country as a whole.

posted by: Robert M on 09.08.05 at 02:33 PM [permalink]

You deserve a big pat on the back for this one.

In Aug you published the Presidents reading list for the summer. One of the books was John Barry's The Great Influenza: the Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. Your comment was the first choice may have some relevance:

Given his response to the hurricane I can not believe he understood what he read.

posted by: Robert M on 09.08.05 at 02:33 PM [permalink]

Section 8 for the very poor will only move the slums of New Orleans to the slums of ??

And: moving from one set of government programs to another, and from one Democratic district to most likely another. Sounds like a recipe for success!

posted by: Katrina Coverage on 09.08.05 at 02:33 PM [permalink]

We could move a large chunk of displaced people to Detroit. Then revitalize that city with a giant federal grant. Personally, I wish the restaurant staffs from New Orleans would move to Chicago. If they can make a fine gumbo, they can stay at my house.

posted by: Dude on 09.08.05 at 02:33 PM [permalink]

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