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HUD: speed storm repairs

New York Times News Service

Louisiana homeowners may get faster access to rebuilding grants after a federal decision late last month that is forcing the state to change its slow-moving $7.5-billion "Road Home" program to repair houses damaged or destroyed by hurricanes in 2005.

But the changes, which should be detailed next week, have raised concerns that some homeowners will not use their grants of up to $150,000 for repairs or could lose them to fraud or debt, potentially leading to increased blight in hard-hit areas.

The program has been criticized around the state for its slow pace in handing out the money, which was provided by the federal government. As of April 3, more than 121,000 families had applied to Road Home, but roughly half had still not had been told how much money they could receive.

Just 6,100 families — 5 percent of applicants — had actually reached the "closing" stage and been given access to the cash by early April. And the money has been doled out through banks only as homeowners proved that rebuilding was in progress.

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But according to changes that have been outlined by the state under the new federal requirements, people who reach the closing stage will get all of their money in a lump sum.

The change worries bankers who hold the mortgages on the damaged properties. In return for oversight of the rebuilding money, they had agreed not to seize it to cover overdue mortgage payments.

A more serious barrier to rebuilding, might be the slow pace of the Road Home program.

Road Home was financed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through Community Development Block Grants, after Congress agreed to the $7.5 billion price tag.

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