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City Council on Wednesday suspended local regulations that prohibit mobile homes on private property in Houston, paving the way for Hurricane Harvey flood victims to qualify for FEMA trailers, a key form of disaster assistance.

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Rebecca Elliott
, Houston Chronicle

City Council on Wednesday suspended local regulations that prohibit mobile homes on private property in Houston, paving the way for Hurricane Harvey flood victims to qualify for FEMA trailers, a key form of disaster assistance.

However, it remains unclear how many city homeowners ultimately could benefit from the change or how soon the trailers could arrive in flood-ravaged neighborhoods.

Flood victims cannot apply for government trailers directly. Instead, the Federal Emergency Management Agency culls its pool of approved applicants for families who may need help beyond a hotel or money for repairs. Government staff then reach out to eligible homeowners to gauge interest.

To date, FEMA has approved 134,589 applications for assistance from Houston residents. As of Monday, however, the agency had deemed just 16 Houston families eligible to receive trailers in their yards, though spokesman Robert Howard said "that number could change if the ordinance passes."

Rene Solis, senior vice president of the local nonprofit BakerRipley, said he sees a "very great need" for trailers in Houston.

"This might not be a solution for everyone," said Solis, whose organization is doing disaster case management for roughly 2,000 families. "But for many, if this is rolled out correctly by FEMA, this could help the homeowner and help the nonprofit organizations doing home repair."

City Council's decision to modify Houston's mobile home regulations comes nearly a month after the Houston Chronicle reported that city rules - and state and federal officials' confusion about those regulations - were blocking FEMA trailers in the city.

Mobile homes are among the types of FEMA housing assistance available for Texans impacted by Hurricane Harvey and allow homeowners to live on-site while repairing their houses.

Houston leaders were wary, however, of allowing trailers to proliferate and hoped other programs would meet residents' needs.

As of this week - more than five months after Harvey - contractors had completed just 587 FEMA home repairs in Houston, according to the General Land Office, and money for permanent rebuilding remains far off.

Those delays left homeowners like Enola Joseph, of northeast Houston, seeking additional help.

"I currently reside in my own home with concrete floors, a leaky roof and malfunctioning electric sockets. I am living in unacceptable conditions and am tired of being ignored," the 80-year-old testified Tuesday at City Council. "I received $2,700 in FEMA benefits, but the poor condition of my home is still negatively impacting my health."

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday that similar appeals from flood victims convinced him to suspend the city's mobile home rules.

"The dollars have not flowed as we hoped they would," Turner told council members. "We're recognizing it, and we're doing something different. We're getting the city of Houston out of the way and providing people who are in desperate need with an additional option. For me, these are the things that matter."

The ordinance City Council approved Wednesday authorizes the city to issue waivers allowing mobile homes on private property for six months, with a possible six-month extension. The ordinance does not supersede deed restrictions.

"It's certainly going to be a tool in the toolbox for thousands of residents," Public Works Director Carol Haddock said.

Although Houston's rules delayed residents' access to FEMA trailers, the program has been slow to reach flood victims statewide.

The first Texas family moved into a FEMA trailer in early October, a month and a half after Harvey, according to FEMA. By the first week of January, that figure was up to roughly 1,100.

Louisiana, by comparison, suffered far more limited flooding in August 2016, and the first family moved into a FEMA trailer by the end of that month. By the end of that year, more than 2,700 families had moved into trailers across the state, according to FEMA.

"It has been extraordinarily slow by my estimation," said Shannon Van Zandt, a fellow at Texas A&M's Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center. "In previous disasters, we have seen units on the ground much more quickly than we have this time."

Howard, the FEMA spokesman, said each disaster is unique.

"The progress in the state of Texas cannot be compared to any other disaster in the fact that different factors apply in size, scope and complexity," he wrote in an email.

At City Hall, council members debated Houston's mobile home restrictions for more than an hour before agreeing to temporarily lift them. Some worried that trailers could linger well after the waivers allowing them expire.

"I'm afraid for the neighbors," said Councilwoman Brenda Stardig, who represents District A. "It might be setting them up for failure for someone that might take advantage."

Councilmen Mike Knox, Mike Laster and others were similarly worried about what they called "the exit strategy," prompting the mayor to grow increasingly exasperated.

"We cannot say to Congress and the state of Texas to move with urgency if we're not moving with urgency ourselves," Turner said to District G Councilman Greg Travis. "You may not have people in your district that need the mobile homes or the containers. ... But there are many people who do, and they don't understand this. I will tell you, they don't understand this conversation."

Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, of District C, urged her colleagues to allow trailers and work out the details later.

"I think where we are now is into the weeds," she said.

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