'A sense of their own space'

Churches, businesses and non-profits in Baton Rouge are trying to transform blighted urban areas into rising communities for Hurricane Katrina survivors.

BY SUSAN KIM | BATON ROUGE, La. | October 24, 2005



"We searched for a way that hurricane survivors could become incorporated into already existing neighborhoods."

—Rev. Patti Snyder


Churches, businesses and non-profits in Baton Rouge are trying to transform blighted urban areas into rising communities for Hurricane Katrina survivors.

"We were searching for ways to offer hurricane survivors smaller communities than those being set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)," explained the Rev. Patti Snyder at University Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge.

There is widespread concern among pastors and community leaders about so-called "FEMA cities," or large clusters of mobile homes housing disaster survivors. In Florida, one year after four hurricanes slammed the state, some sources estimate FEMA is still providing 7,640 mobile homes for storm survivors. Almost half the people in the state who needed temporary shelter after last season's hurricanes still rely on it.

At one "FEMA city" in Charlotte County that houses more than 1,000 residents, living conditions have become so difficult that the county's director of recovery described a "socioeconomic time bomb just waiting to blow up."

A trailer park has been set up north of Baton Rouge by federal authorities as temporary housing. A local official estimated that about 25,000 hotel rooms in the state are still occupied by hurricane evacuees. Many people trying to get back to New Orleans have found rents out of their reach in the tight housing market where so much property has been destroyed.

With the aim of offering an alternative in Baton Rouge, a new public-private partnership was born that includes pastors and church members, volunteers, community development corporations, the non-profit Operation Hope, and Entergy - a large energy company.

"We searched for a way that hurricane survivors could become incorporated into already existing neighborhoods. We wanted them to have a sense of their own space," said Snyder.

Working through local connections, Snyder and others located apartment and homeowners who were, for a variety of reasons, unable to keep their properties up. "They have signed on to have the property refurbished by volunteers," said Snyder.

After properties are assessed by employees of Entergy, property owners will then offer to rent housing units to Hurricane Katrina survivors. "The owners have agreed for rent to stay consistent for a period of three years," said Snyder, "and rental assistance is also provided by FEMA from six to 18 months."

Property owners receive rental income and property improvements. In turn, the owners pledge to help tenants start a "nest egg," explained Snyder. "Owners also agree they will take a large portion of the value of the improvement to their property, that they will divide that among the tenants in the complex, and set up individual development accounts for those tenants. In this way, the increase in value to the property is shared with the tenants."

Individual development accounts can be used for a down payment on a home, to pay for education, or to start a small business, said Snyder. "What we're trying to do is improve life for families - provide a place to live, a community, and a nest egg."

The partnership has started out small: 50 families are now set to move into two small apartment complexes and a single family home that are still being refurbished.

This effort is a drop in the bucket considering that Baton Rouge has taken in an estimated 100,000 new residents.

But Snyder and others hope the model grows. "The broader Baton Rouge community gets some eradication of urban blight. A lot of these properties are boarded up. This will bring some economic rejuvenation."

The coalition of organizations decided which families received the housing after weighing who had the greatest need. "Most of the folks that have been accepted are new mothers and people with disabilities. Those people have taken first priority," said Snyder.

Snyder and other community leaders said they hope their newfound model will eventually become a vision for creating a community.

Will people be safe? "We'll have exterior lighting," said Snyder. "There is a fence around the properties. We're going to be cautious about that."


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