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Governor John Bel Edwards

Renters are projected to need a lot more help than Louisiana is giving them

The gist: Offered as relief, the governor’s emergency rent assistance program has met little celebration from housing advocates, who are wary that the $24 million set aside is a pittance compared with the volume of estimated need. Housing advocates say avoiding a wave of housing instability in Louisiana, one of the poorest states in the country, will cost at least 10 times what the state has cobbled together. 

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Up front, the Louisiana Emergency Rental Assistance program will launch with $7 million and grow to collect $24 million in federal housing funds. The program will be centralized and managed by the Louisiana Housing Corporation. An income cap of $25,450 limits the program to the very poor. Louisiana’s median income is around $48,000.

A report circulated by housing advocates estimates Louisiana renters need $250 million through the end of the year. Metro Lafayette alone, according to that same calculation, would need more than twice what’s been offered by the program, and little money has been offered up locally. On Tuesday, the City Council will vote to authorize $200,000 in local rent and utility relief. 

“It’s like trying to soak up an oil spill with a paper towel,” says Leigh Rachal, executive director of the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, of the resources thrown at housing so far. Her comments echo official statements from statewide organizations like HousingLouisiana, which issued a press release applauding the thought behind the program but questioning the effort. A $15 million program in Houston ran out of money in two hours. 

Critics further point out the billions in federal assistance handed out to small businesses in Louisiana alone. Around $8 billion flowed into Louisiana’s small businesses via the CARES Act, the multi-trillion dollar stimulus stood up in a scramble by Congress to prop up the American economy as joblessness soared. Businesses in Lafayette Parish collected $600 million in forgivable federal loans valued at $150,000 or more through that program. The Louisiana Legislature authorized another $300 million for its own Main Street Recovery Act. And Lafayette Consolidated Government opened a $1 million small business grant program with funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

Housing advocates continue to warn of a coming wave of evictions. Legal proceedings on evictions in Louisiana resumed in June, the first shoe to drop. But the looming July 25 end of a federal moratorium on evictions has advocates in suspense. Expanded unemployment benefits will end July 31, days after the eviction protections are lifted for many of Louisiana’s 600,000 renter households. And, to be sure, many mortgage holders could be in trouble too as incomes decline and mortgage relief dries up. 

“We’ve been talking about it for a long time because we knew that if we could find a solution” it would take a while to make it work, Rachal says. Rent programs based on federal dollars are notoriously slow, suggesting that even as applicants flock to the rent program’s website or blow up 211 for help, the money won’t come quickly for them, both gumming up the flow of relief and — in the worst cases — arriving too little, too late. 

Evictions have been abnormally low in Lafayette. The City Court docket has held steady at 30 filings per week since the eviction stay was lifted in June. Pre-Covid levels averaged around 60 evictions per week, according to City Court Chief Judge Doug Saloom. “I hold out the hope that those numbers don’t escalate,” Saloom says. 

It feels like a calm before the storm. The dire predictions from housing advocates are premised on sustained, high levels of unemployment. While ticking down, unemployment figures have remained stubbornly high, suggesting the astronomical costs of need worrying housing advocates aren’t so far fetched. Even at half the value projected, the scale would be historic. Louisiana has 312,000 continued unemployment claims, posting a small decline last week. The Acadiana region bucked the trend, bumping slightly up to just more than 36,000 claims. 

The early signs are there. More than 320 households, including many with children, are in hotel rooms secured as emergency housing by ARCH, Rachal says, and the number is rising. Beyond people showing up for help, advocates can’t see beyond the horizon to what’s coming. It’s unclear exactly how many people live in housing currently protected by the federal eviction moratorium, which covers any domicile that receives federal dollars — by voucher, mortgage backing or tax credit. Whatever that figure, it’s likely to dwarf the number that were covered by the state’s moratorium only. 

“I have a lot of concern that people might think that’s solved now,” Rachal says of the message the rental program sends. “And it’s not.”

COLUMN: A post-primary postmortem

Christie Maloyed unpacks what went down during the jungle primary and what’s to come in the runoff.

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Acadiana residents and leaders frustrated by slow launch of state watershed initiative

The gist: Three years since its conception in the wake of the 2016 floods, the Louisiana Watershed Initiative has begun to take shape at a speed that is frustrating flood victims, advocates and local officials. Billed as an apolitical approach to tackling the state’s flood risk, the program has a steep hill to climb above political thorns.  

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Get caught up, quickly: The Louisiana Watershed Initiative is a statewide program, commissioned by Gov. John Bel Edwards, to rewrite how Louisiana manages flood risk. Dividing the state into eight regions mapped along the state’s major watersheds, the initiative was launched to lift flood management decision-making above politics. A major catalyst for the program is a $1.2 billion grant authorized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development intended to fund transformative projects and programs that make Louisiana less prone to stormwater disaster. Lafayette Parish and the Teche-Vermilion Watershed are part of Region 5, a zone made up of 16 parishes and dozens of municipalities. 

A draft action plan will be delivered Thursday. It’s expected to outline “draft projects” and data modeling programs that will enable projects to begin drawing down funds from the HUD grant, according to materials released at a public hearing in Lafayette last week. Allocations will be made to competitive projects in all eight regions over the next decade, with an initial $100 million infusion available in the next year for what LWI officials characterize as “no regrets” projects that don’t threaten to worsen flood conditions in neighboring jurisdictions. Office of Community Development CEO Pat Forbes, an initiative leader, said at the hearing that dredging the Vermilion River could qualify for that first tranche of funding. 

A map showing the watershed regions established by the Louisiana Watershed Initiative. Lafayette Parish is in Region 5.

Political suspicion has already begun to simmer. Region 5 officials peppered LWI representatives last week about the initiative’s speed, particularly the emphasis on more modeling and study, and how slowly the bulk of the HUD funds will be released. Youngsville Mayor Ken Ritter complained that municipalities had been left out of the decision-making process thus far, noting his office wasn’t notified of the hearing, and needled state representatives for dancing around the formality of naming the Acadiana Planning Commission as the Region 5 fiscal agent, the agency responsible for managing the program and distributing funds. 

“It is frustrating, but it’s federal money,” APC CEO Monique Boulet says, acknowledging the uphill public relations battle. “HUD has not completed the process [of making the funds available]. It’s still hung up in Washington. I know there’s a natural frustration built in. When you’re gonna use large amounts of federal money it’s slow.” 

$400,000 would go to APC to staff a team to manage the region. The funds for “capacity building” come from a separate state pool, not the HUD grant. Boulet says APC has not yet been formally appointed as the Region 5 fiscal agent, but she expects the agency will be. The regional structure developed by LWI outlines around regional planning agencies like APC. Temporary steering committees will be developed over the next few months, which will in turn put permanent management structures in place. Officials in Ascension Parish have bristled at the steering nominating process and the role of the Capital Region Planning Commission, the APC analog for that region. 

Locals want dirt moved now. But the program isn’t quite designed for immediate impact beyond the $100 million available in the next year. The bulk of the $1.2 billion fund will be released over the next 10 years as projects come online. LWI project lead Alex Carter projected deploying new watershed models, a network never before created at this scale, in the first two years, distributing half of the HUD funds by year five and completing allocations by year 10. HUD requires 50% of the money to go to projects in the 10 parishes most heavily impacted in 2016, including Region 5’s Lafayette Parish, Vermilion Parish and Acadia Parish. While the grant dollars were allocated by Congress in 2018, the federal guidelines for how the money should be used were only released in August. LWI is now hustling to finalize an action plan by the end of the year to open lines of credit, backed by the HUD funding, in late 2020.

“You need to have organized approach with this statewide,” says Dave Dixon, an advocate with volunteer organization DredgeTheVermilion.org. Dixon and Sierra Club Acadian Group Chair Harold Schoeffler have traveled the Teche-Vermilion Watershed promoting a list of projects they say will immediately reduce risk, the best known of which is dredging the Vermilion River. Dixon concedes the challenges of putting together such a wide-ranging program, but believes the state has dragged its feet in getting to this point. “I totally disagree with them taking this long” to get it together, he says. “They should have had a plan after 2016.” 

LWI officials say the program is about systemic change. While high impact projects are part of the ground game, the vision for LWI is to remake how Louisiana deals with flood risk. Funds could be used to “incentivize” municipalities and parishes to rethink patchy and inconsistent development standards that Forbes characterized as a “race to the bottom” of regulations loosened to attract commerce. The higher perch of the regional watershed bodies, ultimately designed by the member parishes in each region, would enable jurisdictions to set more uniform standards, LWI representatives believe. 

“Your local government could make that decision right now,” Forbes said last week. “It’s a difficult one to make because your neighbor in the watershed may not make the same decision, and consequently you push that development to your neighbor.” 

Acadiana submitted 22 projects totalling $80 million for a FEMA grant issued after the 2016 flood. Only nine projects were selected to receive funding from the $25 million hazard mitigation fund. Of those, only two have been approved by FEMA: a pair of regional detention projects in Youngsville totaling $7.5 million. Shovel-ready projects in that group are eligible to receive matching funds from the HUD pool. 

Why this matters: Headline-grabbing grants have shown a financial commitment from local, state and federal agencies to address Louisiana’s flooding problem wholesale, yet the pace of action has continued to frustrate stakeholders. A near miss of devastating rains in East Texas this month are a reminder of the sustained threat the region faces while policymakers work at the speed of government. Whether public buy-in is accomplished will be a big factor in the state initiative’s success and its ability to rise above politics.