New Orleans Dumps FEMA Trailers–and Maybe the People in Them

The new tough-on-blight policy doesn't mean the city will help people work out stable housing.

By Julianne Hing Jan 03, 2011

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu delivered on his promise to shut down the remaining FEMA trailers in the city, though not in the way struggling residents would have hoped. As of Jan. 1, New Orleans residents still living in FEMA trailers parked on their property face fines of up to $500 every day they remain in the government-provided housing units. Residents received notice days before Christmas, the AP reported.

It doesn’t mean the city will help people work out housing alternatives for themselves. According to the AP, city officials said they’d make exceptions for "that little old lady who has no place and no money," as New Orleans’ deputy chief administrative officer Ann Duplessis described it, but that, "People have to assume some responsibility for their decision."

The city hopes the last of the trailers will be gone over the next three months, the same time frame Landrieu set to deal with 10,000 other blighted buildings in the city. The FEMA trailer closures are part of Landrieu’s aggressive anti-blight program, which he kicked off after winning his chance to lead the city last year. "The first thing you have to do is have very strict enforcement, which we did not have in the city," Landrieu said on New Orleans’ WWLTV‘s morning news program back in November. "So we’ve just kinda let people get by. We’re not going to do that anymore." 

Those who don’t comply could see their property "moved back into commerce," Landrieu said at the time.

With these final FEMA eviction notices, Landrieu sends the message that he’s determined to beautify the city, if not address housing accessibility issues for people who most need help.

"The blight eradication program, if not done correctly, can become a poor-person eradication program," Lance Hill, the executive director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research, told the AP.

The AP reports that 221 trailers remain in the city, a vestige of the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the long slog to recovery. While it continues other rebuilding work, shutting down the FEMA trailers would close, if only symbolically, an embarrassingly shameful chapter in the city’s unfinished Gulf Coast recovery work. At its outset, the city had more than 23,000 trailers in the city. FEMA distributed 200,000 units throughout the country in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It is the largest temporary housing public program ever, NPR reported, and perhaps one of the most publicly disgraced.

From the very beginning, the hastily built trailers emitted formaldehyde at levels so toxic the government banned them from long-term residential use. That didn’t stop FEMA from unloading $2.7 billion worth of them years later, though they were supposed to warn subsequent owners of the health hazards of them. This summer the trailers showed up again in the Gulf Coast when BP oil spill cleanup workers were housed in them.

The trailers were never designed to be permanent housing. Many who stayed in them years after the storm stuck around not out of choice; they had nowhere else to go. For many in New Orleans, such remains the case today.

Eradicating the trailers may help smooth out the city’s landscape, but without other alternatives it will do little to ease the city’s longstanding housing woes.