National News

FEMA TRAILERS YET TO ROLL IN TO HOUSTON

Posted January 5, 2018 10:08 p.m. EST

More than 1,100 families across Texas have moved into FEMA trailers, but don't expect to see the mobile homes in Houston anytime soon.

That's because local regulations mostly restrict manufactured housing units and recreational vehicles to mobile home parks, and city officials have not lifted those rules in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, meanwhile, is under the impression Houston has opted out of its mobile home programs entirely.

The result: More than four months after Harvey, not a single Houston family has been able to move into a FEMA trailer, the state's chief temporary housing option for flood victims.

"People are displaced. People are living in apartments that are dangerous to their health and safety. If there are options for safe housing, they should be taken advantage of," said Madison Sloan, who manages disaster recovery projects for the Austin-based advocacy group Texas Appleseed. "What we saw after Katrina and other major disasters was cities waiving restrictions on the placement of temporary housing units on residential property so people could have a safe place to live on their property while they rebuild their home. And if that's not happening, that's a problem and a real delay in people's ability to recover."

Mayor Sylvester Turner's communications staff did not respond to repeated requests for comment Thursday about whether the mayor is considering loosening or suspending the city's mobile home regulations to provide housing options for Houstonians whose homes Harvey flooded.

Two hours after the Chronicle published its story, however, city housing director Tom McCasland said the policy is under review due to "current housing demand, and considering how long it may take for dollars to flow from Washington to Austin to Houston."

The city has estimated that the storm damaged more than 311,000 houses and apartments, roughly a third of the housing stock. Many of those families have cobbled together their own solutions, but thousands still await help.

McCasland said the city has not opted out of FEMA's trailer programs, but is instead focusing on implementing federally-funded repair and rental initiatives.

Those, too, have yet to provide any housing for Houston flood victims.

"The fact that there are zero trailers ready for move-in inside the city of Houston is not due to the ordinance," McCasland said. "Our department has offered the (state's General Land Office) assistance in identifying RV parks inside the city where we could place trailers."

There are roughly 6,200 permitted commercial spots for manufactured housing or RVs in Houston, but city officials could not say how many of them currently are vacant and, thus, available to Harvey victims.

Brittany Eck, a spokeswoman for the land office, which is overseeing the implementation of FEMA's temporary housing programs, challenged McCasland's version of events.

"I spoke with the top three staff members overseeing these FEMA programs and they have not been contacted regarding commercial sites within the city limits," Eck said in a text message Thursday night.

FEMA housing programs are among the assistance options for Texans who have had trouble finding a safe place to live.

The state has had limited success with its repair and rental programs so far, with just two dozen units leased or repaired as of this week. Mobile homes, on the other hand, have been dispersed statewide, including around Houston.

More than 100 families have been able to move into an RV or manufactured housing in Harris County; 72 in Galveston County; 63 in Brazoria County; 15 in Fort Bend County; and seven in Montgomery County, according to FEMA.

Houston is not the only place where local regulations have stymied the state's temporary housing programs, Eck said, but she added that several other jurisdictions have adjusted their rules post-Harvey.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, meanwhile, emphasized the need for local control over recovery.

"They need to have that right, and Houston being one of them, to say we won't allow (manufactured housing units) or trailers in our communities," Bush said during a Thursday news conference in League City, where he appeared with a resident who recently moved into an RV.