Lafayette housing in short supply for Ida evacuees

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

Hoshua Brown, his wife and two kids could not get two more nights at the Super 7 Inn & Suites in Lafayette. The service road motel, near the junction of I-10 and Highway 90, was sold out. So is virtually every hotel in Lafayette, save for four rooms at a Motel 6, according to Lafayette Travel’s Hospitality Hub. 

Brown, a shipyard worker from Houma, will move his family to another motel down the strip. After that, he has no idea where they’ll go.  

“We’re just going to do the hotel room thing for now,” Brown says. “If it gets bad, I’ll have to go find a job,” he adds. “If you spend money, you got to replace it.” 

Housing and social service agencies say more and more people are arriving, but the number is unclear. Getting a snapshot of who is here and what they need has been difficult. The picture of need is still very much emerging. But Lafayette’s lack of housing was well established before the storm. 

Those looking for disaster shelter here are being redirected to convention centers in Alexandria and Baton Rouge. Others are looking for short-term leases or even rentals. A handful of families have looked to transfer their kids to Lafayette schools, according to LPSS spokeswoman Allison Dickerson. 

Inventory was at an all-time low long before Ida formed in the Gulf of Mexico and sprinted to the coast, pummeling southeast Louisiana. Just a few dozen single-family homes and townhomes were available for rent this week, real estate listings show. Available apartments are also limited. And that’s across income levels. 

“The residential real estate market for homes for sale, homes for rent or apartments for rent is as tight as I have ever seen it, well before Ida,” says Billeaud Companies CEO Steven Hebert. “It is going to be very difficult to support many people displaced from Ida.” 

These conditions contrast starkly with Lafayette’s role during Hurricane Katrina, which displaced thousands of people, many moving to Lafayette and elsewhere permanently. New Orleans still hasn’t recovered its pre-Katrina population. 

Katrina transformed Lafayette’s housing market overnight. At the time, Hebert says, the real estate market was faltering, with months supply — the inventory benchmark used to measure demand — holding at nine months to over a year. In other words, houses were stuck on the shelves. Within a month of Katrina, that inventory vanished. Companies bought up houses in bulk for their displaced employees. 

This is a very different situation. Ida largely spared New Orleans. Sustained power outages are the primary concern for residents there, but most structures remain intact, meaning displacements from Louisiana’s largest population center could be more temporary. 

Ida, however, wrecked Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes. Most structures in those two areas were damaged, according to early assessments. Around 200,000 people live in the area, combining the populations of the two parishes. Right now, there is but one operating hospital. While Ida might produce a much smaller diaspora, Lafayette would still struggle to absorb it. 

“I don’t know what we’re expecting, honestly, at this point,” says Melinda Taylor of Acadiana’s Habitat for Humanity, regarding the situation in southeast Louisiana. “The level of destruction and the length of time it would take to get people securely housed again is unknown.” 

A massive run on home purchases spurred by low interest rates during the pandemic has priced even some moderate incomes out of the market, Taylor says. Lafayette hasn’t built new public housing in decades. Renovations on two properties owned by the Lafayette housing authority won’t add any units. 

Before Ida, real estate agent Angel McGuire struggled to place working families in homes. For one family evicted by a landlord looking to sell the house they lived in, she located just seven properties in their price range. None had enough bedrooms to fit their family. 

“They had so many days to get out,” McGuire says. “They didn’t have enough cash.” The family moved on, but she’s not sure where. 

Shelter is also scarce. Agencies that respond to homelessness in Acadiana have little to offer those who have nowhere to go. Throughout the pandemic, homelessness has grown locally while the number of shelter beds shrunk. 

Many displaced by Ida will stay with family or float from couch to couch. Those with means will land on their feet. Others will end up sleeping in cars or on the streets. 

“Our housing stock numbers are way down. That’s not a particularly easy thing to fix,” says Leigh Rachal, executive director of the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Housing and Homelessness. “I don’t know what that solution is going to be.” 

The solution will depend on how many people show up and what they need. As of Wednesday, 220,000 people had applied for individual assistance with FEMA, which includes funds for housing. Power is coming online in New Orleans, with lights flickering on in New Orleans East and the CBD, but 900,000 people are without electricity and likely will be for several days. 

Conditions are still dire in Terrebone and Lafourche. Many families are nonetheless returning home to start rebuilding, while others use Lafayette as a staging area. 

Hoshua Brown and his family left Houma after the storm, unable to swelter any longer. Their home was mostly intact, except for some water damage in his bedroom floor. His neighbors’ trailers are gone. 

The limbo will stress them financially, Brown says, so long as he can’t return to work. They haven’t begun looking for something more permanent. As of Tuesday, his individual assistance application was still pending. 

“We’re booked till Friday for sure,” he says. “After that, we’ll have to see.”