Housing shortage is ‘single greatest concern’ in Louisiana, governor says

A stretch of hotels along Highway 90 in Lafayette
Immediately after Ida, virtually every hotel in Lafayette was booked up, leaving displaced families in limbo. Photo by Robin May

This story was first reported by Louisiana Illuminator and republished with permission.

A shortage in housing is the single greatest concern in Louisiana with an estimated $2.5 billion in unmet housing needs due to Hurricane Ida on top of the $900 million still needed due to the storms that struck the state over a year ago, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Thursday.

The governor has been in Washington, D.C. all week meeting with members of Congress and President Joe Biden’s administration to impress upon them an urgent need for federal assistance to hasten recovery efforts in Louisiana. The state is not only recovering from Hurricane Ida, which made landfall Aug. 29, but also from the damaging winter storm and spring flooding that occurred earlier this year and the devastation of Hurricanes Laura, Delta and Zeta in 2020.

“When you have been slammed by as many storms as we have in Louisiana during a pandemic — and it’s not just the hurricanes,” Edwards said during a virtual press conference he held Thursday from D.C. “It’s also the winter storm, the May flood — all during the pandemic. Our local governmental entities have really been stretched.”

Even before the disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic, more than a third of renters in Louisiana were low-income and at risk of eviction, according to tabulations of the 2019 American Community Survey by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. 

The governor said his “biggest concern” is to get disaster recovery funding for Louisiana’s unmet long-term housing needs: “That’s the single biggest focus of the trip.”

On Monday, state House Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee (R-Houma) lamented the sluggish pace of aid going to Louisiana’s Bayou Region. Magee said Lafourche and Terrebonne Parish residents have been sleeping in tents and makeshift structures built out of rubble. About 13,000 homes in that region have been destroyed, including 60% of homes in south Terrebonne Parish, he said. 

Magee said FEMA representatives told him it would be around 30 days before they can send housing resources like trailers and portable units to the area, according to previous reporting by the Louisiana Illuminator.

At Thursday’s press conference, Edwards said immediate temporary housing needs “can be and should be met by FEMA.” He said FEMA already has an emergency fund available for such needs. There are about 25,000 displaced Louisiana residents in hotels funded by FEMA, but the state is waiting on the agency to make some final decisions with respect to other housing solutions, Edwards said.

The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a $28.6 billion disaster relief bill that is now pending in the Senate. The funding would be shared among states that experienced disasters this year and in 2020. Federal agencies such as FEMA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will determine how much aid each state will receive. 

Edwards said he feels confident Congress will pass the disaster relief bill, but he expressed some concern that the relief could be delayed due to a standoff between Senate Republicans and Democrats over the nation’s debt ceiling.

Failure to increase the debt ceiling could halt most federal funding and cause a widespread government shutdown. In an effort to block a Democrat-backed multitrillion-dollar spending bill, Republicans have said they won’t support an increase of the nation’s debt ceiling despite having raised it three times to fund spending under the Trump administration. The U.S. Treasury Department said the country will reach the borrowing limit some time in October and warned of “irreparable damage to the U.S. economy and global financial markets” if Congress waits until the last minute to extend it.

“Whether I was talking to Republicans or Democrats, House or Senate members, members of the administration and so forth, everyone supports the disaster relief component,” Edwards said. “The question is whether the disaster relief becomes collateral damage to some larger unrelated issue that does involve more partisanship. I hope that they can work their way through it.”