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In New Orleans, Many Have Yet to Travel the Road Home

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Everyone knows that the Road Home Program, though well intentioned, has been deeply flawed since its inception. In 2007, working with the National Fair Housing Alliance, my staff at the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Center and I set out to right at least one of the major program flaws.

The Road Home Program was designed to provide rebuilding grants to residents whose homes were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina based on the value of their homes, rather than the cost to repair the damage. This policy choice had the dramatic affect of impeding New Orleans' struggling recovery.

Because pre-storm home values were significantly lower in African-American neighborhoods than in white neighborhoods, homeowners in African-American neighborhoods consistently received far smaller Road Home grants than homes in white neighborhoods; and they were far more likely to have large gaps in the resources needed to rebuild.

This was true even when a home in a predominantly black neighborhood was essentially identical to a home in a predominantly white neighborhood and had identical storm damage. The end result is that communities like New Orleans East and the Lower 9th Ward are far from rebuilt.

Since day one, our request has been the same--that all homeowners receive rebuilding grants based on the cost of rebuilding, rather than pre-storm home value. In other words, homeowners with the exact same rebuilding costs should be treated equally.

Regrettably, after months of fruitless aggressive advocacy, in 2008 we were left with no choice but to pursue litigation against the state of Louisiana and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). While HUD and Louisiana mounted vigorous defenses, the U.S. District Court refused to dismiss the case. In August 2010, the District Court ruled that the Road Home Program was likely to be found unlawful and enjoined the state from using pre-storm value to issue new grants. A month later, a federal appellate court froze all unspent surplus federal Road Home funds so that all homeowners could later receive non-discriminatory grants based on the cost of damage. Shortly thereafter, HUD and Louisiana agreed to engage us in active settlement talks.

Settlement, however, was no easy task. There were no more than $150 million in federal Road Home funds remaining. And all parties agreed that the full remedy the Plaintiffs sought--grants based on the cost of damage--would cost many times the amount of remaining funds. In spite of the lack of remaining funds to provide all Road Home recipients with non-discriminatory grants, we all worked cooperatively to reach a mutually agreeable solution that would address the plaintiffs' concerns over discrimination and also advance Louisiana's priority of reducing Katrina-related blight.

Unfortunately, a few weeks ago, the federal appellate court lifted its injunction, and sent the case back to the district court so that it could proceed to trial. Shortly thereafter, communication between the parties slowed--and settlement talks have ceased. Even worse, the Obama administration's leadership at HUD is taking legal positions in this case that threaten to undermine the Fair Housing Act and other federal civil rights laws.

On Friday, the state released proposed Action Plan Amendment 51. The amendment draws heavily from solutions produced in settlement talks, but falls significantly short of our hard-fought aim to right the wrong created by the Road Home program's use of the discriminatory pre-storm home value.

The state and HUD have come a long way since they started the Road Home Program. In response to our advocacy, they have adopted an amendment allowing all low-income homeowners to receive non-discriminatory grants based on the cost of repairing their homes up to $150,000. As a result, more than 13,000 low-income homeowners have received over $469 million in additional grants. And they have more heavily targeted program activities to communities harmed by the discriminatory pre-storm value formula. Further, I am thankful that the state has largely drawn from our shared efforts in drafting Action Plan Amendment 51 to give supplemental grants to homeowners who have not yet returned to their homes.

However, our work is far from done.

I urge Louisiana and HUD to come back to the negotiating table and see this process through. I believe that the state and HUD's decisions should not be led by litigation stances. Instead, their steps should be guided by principles of fairness and equity. Further, additional protracted litigation may only delay progress. Both the state and HUD should immediately reopen settlement talks and work with the plaintiffs to achieve the best result for homeowners who are still struggling to repair their homes and their communities.

I stand firm in my belief that together we can fashion a resolution that eliminates the Road Home Program's discriminatory effects to the greatest extent possible, addresses blight and confronts the many unmet housing needs in our community. New Orleans' success depends on it.

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