Recovery advice for N.J. from a Katrina veteran:

The Star-Ledger
Reilly Morse
Recovery advice for N.J. from a Katrina veteran: As rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Sandy stretch into their eighth month, we on the Gulf Coast offer our support and sympathy to thousands of New Jerseyans still putting their lives back together.

No part of America ever should undergo the long, slow and imbalanced recovery process that Gulf communities endured after Hurricane Katrina. Incredible as it may sound, nearly eight years after Katrina, thousands of low-income Mississippi households still have not yet been told if they even qualify for housing repair aid. Unfortunately, the road to recovery after Sandy will likely be long, as well.

Communities affected by Katrina were figuring out how to navigate the often-complicated process of obtaining disaster relief as they went along. Thankfully, Sandy victims don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There is a blueprint of recovery that should guide efforts to ensure that the people hardest hit by Sandy receive the help they need. Here is what we have learned from our own experience of dealing with leaders who have a blind spot for the working poor.
First, the process of rebuilding can offer an opportunity to re-examine the diversity of our communities. Both Katrina and Sandy have exposed vulnerable fault lines that exist in our neighborhoods.

New Jersey’s newly announced $30 million Neighborhood Enhancement Program correctly continues to focus on restoring affordable rental housing in blighted and vacant properties. But while programs such as the NEP provide short-term relief, they do not advance housing mobility.

So New Jersey should make specific efforts to relocate some low-income housing into middle-income communities. Our experience with Katrina underscores the need for such proactive efforts at integration: Years after the hurricane hit, the stagnant rebuilding of low-income, racially segregated neighborhoods still hinders the development of our local economies.

Second, it is important to realize that the people most vulnerable to major disasters are low-income individuals without stable housing. Programs should help renters and public housing residents as well as home­owners.

Both Katrina and Sandy have exposed vulnerable fault lines that exist in our neighborhoods.

We support the decision by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to step in and require Gov. Chris Christie to shift $75 million to meet those needs, as noted in a recent Star-Ledger editorial. The Landlord Incentive program, a two-year rent-subsidy program, should prioritize the hardest-hit communities, as the coalition Fair Share New Jersey has recently demanded, and the state should be prepared to enlarge and extend the duration of the program as needed.
We hope New Jersey will do better than Mississippi on public housing, where it took our state three years to spend the first block-grant dollar on reconstruction.
In addition, a key component for successful recovery is the engagement of community members themselves. As we learned after Katrina, the wide flexibility of federal disaster funding means that residents must get involved in this process at the beginning and stay involved. Today’s HUD welcomes, and will listen to, a persuasive case for change in the state’s use of disaster funding.

After Katrina, this often was not the case. In Mississippi, advocates pressed HUD under the Bush administration not to divert disaster housing funds prematurely to other uses. After a long fight and a change in HUD leadership, we succeeded in putting into place a $132 million unmet housing needs program in 2010.
Finally, follow-through and accountability are essential to ensure that eligible people receive the assistance they deserve. For example, in 2011, Mississippi erroneously disqualified about 4,000 applicants for unmet housing need. After pressing HUD and the state to re-evaluate this group, HUD approved an additional $40 million last month to complete this long-delayed housing recovery for Mississippi’s most vulnerable storm victims.
One common thread in these lessons is the importance of legal service and public-interest lawyers who help people access benefits and ensure accountability in government-run programs. After Katrina, we obtained extensive volunteer support from private firms and law schools across the country, including New Jersey. These lawyers and law students took cases and staffed clinics to help people navigate the often-confusing process of applying for disaster relief and to ensure fairness in the recovery process.

We know from our visits last year that New Jersey’s legal service and public advocacy communities are committed and strong. We encourage New Jersey to support their efforts to ensure access to justice for all storm-damaged residents.

Reilly Morse is managing director of the Mississippi Center for Justice.