Tuesday is the last day victims of the 2011 flood will have a free place to live in a FEMA-issued mobile home, though those electing to will be able to rent their temporary homes for a further six months, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said.
The agency sent trailers to provide housing for 113 Luzerne County households affected by the September 2011 flood of the Susquehanna River that devastated unprotected communities in the county and elsewhere.
It also constructed a new mobile home park in Tunkhannock Township holding 40 to 50 trailers for Wyoming County residents affected by flooding. Twenty-two trailers remained occupied in Luzerne County last week, while all Wyoming County residents had moved out.
Statewide, 246 of about 300 temporary housing recipients have moved out of the trailers.
By law, disaster victims are eligible to receive temporary housing assistance for 18 months from the date a presidential disaster declaration is issued; Sept. 12, 2011 for Tropical Storm Lee.
According to agency spokesman Peter Herrick, FEMA has extended the eligibility period for residents to stay in the trailers by six months, or through Sept. 12, but starting April 1 residents must pay rent to stay in the trailers.
Residents who choose to stay will not be charged for the period between March 13 and March 31. During the initial 18 months, rent and basic utilities were provided free of charge, but occupants will now be billed.
Rent for the units will be based on the fair-market rent established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which for Luzerne County is currently $501 for an efficiency apartment, $597 for a one-bedroom unit, $743 for a two-bedroom unit, $943 for a three-bedroom unit and $1,059 for a four-bedroom unit.
Herrick said rental amounts could be reduced based upon the post-disaster income of applicants if they appeal for a reduction. No additional financial assistance will be available to the displaced residents.
Herrick said that although FEMA housing advisers will continue to be available to work with disaster victims through the six-month extension, occupants of the trailers are responsible for developing their own plans for permanent housing. He noted the housing program is temporary and intended to “serve as a bridge until other housing can be secured.”
“The six-month extension is not by itself a solution, but it will allow additional time for the community to develop housing options, and give residents an additional six months to complete their housing solution,” he wrote in an email. “FEMA will continue to explore other potential avenues of assistance in addition to working with Voluntary Organizations.”
But some residents still living in trailers in Luzerne County said they wish the government could have done more.
Jim Schock of West Pittston said he suffered a minor heart attack the day of the flood.
Also suffering from four other medical conditions including emphysema and diabetes, his ailments prevent him from working. He receives only $800 to $900 a month in Social Security payments.
Despite that, Schock said FEMA only helped him find apartments with rents as high as his income, and that were often far from his former Pittston address and his health care providers. He also alleged that starting late last year, FEMA workers have been coming to his mobile home at the East Mountain Ridge Mobile Home Park more often than the once monthly visit stipulated in his housing agreement.
“(FEMA) was like an angel in the beginning,” Schock said. “And then they turned into a devil. … What got me so bad was every single thing they asked me to do, I did, and they’re still hassling me. Their whole thing was just to get me out.”
Schock said he has found an apartment with more affordable rent on his own, and that he would be moving by the end of the month, but said his experience with FEMA has left him bitter and broken.
“I’m tired, I’m sick and I’m just at that point where I’m just like, do what you want, I give up,” Schock said. “And that’s not what I want to do.”
Rent, damage bill
Duane Pellam of Plymouth Township said he has already been evicted from the trailer he shares with his fiancee and daughter. He showed a bill for $1,079 for rent and damages for the month of January to prove it.
Pellam said he was evicted for refusing to allow FEMA workers to enter his home on Allen Street in the West Nanticoke section of Plymouth Township.
Recipients of FEMA aid must demonstrate that they are making progress toward finding permanent housing once a month. For homeowners planning to return to their homes, that means they must show the progress in repairing their damaged property.
Pellam said his house was robbed of about $30,000 in tools and supplies and he refused to allow FEMA entry because he was waiting for state police to take fingerprints inside the home.
State police at Wyoming said they could not confirm Pellam’s story because they do not release information about the victims of crimes, but they said there were multiple robberies in the area of Pellam’s home on Allen Street around the time Pellam reported.
Pellam said he has not paid the January bill, and he does not plan to leave his FEMA mobile home.
“Not unless they come with the sheriff and bodily remove us,” he said. “First of all, you can’t evict someone in the middle of the winter; it’s against the law.”
Herrick responded that FEMA does not speak to the situations or specific occupants for privacy issues, but said generally that while FEMA housing advisers check progress in obtaining alternate housing monthly, “interim contacts may be necessary in some cases for a variety of reasons.”
“There are also times when housing advisers will need to deliver or obtain information and documents from the disaster survivor,” he said.
Herrick also noted that under the housing agreement signed by mobile home recipients, disaster survivors acknowledge that failure to comply with the the government’s conditions for use or any decision by FEMA to terminate the local direct housing program may result in them being required to leave the unit and return the unit’s keys to FEMA as soon as possible.
“The survivor agrees to make a diligent effort to obtain permanent housing as soon as possible and to establish a permanent housing plan,” he added. “They agree that, if FEMA determines adequate alternate housing is available, their household will accept that alternate housing and leave this temporary housing unit as soon as possible.
“The housing advisor assists the survivor by offering available rental units in their area including available housing obtained through PA Housing Search and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development local housing authorities. After Tropical Storm Lee, some local housing authorities were prioritizing displaced disaster survivors whose permanent housing plan fit their program criteria.”
In contrast to Luzerne County, all Wyoming County residents have moved out of the temporary housing units. Wyoming County Emergency Manager Gene Dziak said the last residents of the Highfields Community Trailer Park built by FEMA in Tunkhannock Township had moved out last week.
He said the park is now a “ghost town.”
“There’s a couple of trailers left and that’s about it,” Dziak said.
FEMA spent between $3 million and $4 million developing and installing utility connections on the privately owned site, not counting the cost of mobile homes. It elected to develop the 30-acre property due to a lack of rental housing and space in existing mobile home parks in Wyoming County.
Dziak applauded the agency’s work in providing housing to residents of his county.
“I think FEMA did a good job at moving people in and out of there and doing the right things,” Dziak said. “They kept their 18-month deal and overall they did a good job.”
As residents who have moved out have vacated their housing units, many units have disappeared from the lots in local mobile home parks where they formerly stood. Herrick said they have been moved to a staging area and will, depending on condition, be auctioned to the general public through the General Service Administration’s website.
The staging area and offices at the former Sunshine Market on Route 315 in Plains Township, meanwhile, remain open. Herrick said the facility will remain open to demobilize trailers and to provide office space for housing advisers.
“An exact time frame for the operation of this facility isn’t known yet as there is still work to be done as the community recovers from Tropical Storm Lee,” Herrick said.