By now, everyone has seen the photographs and the television footage. People being airlifted from roofs as water encroaches upon the top story of their home. New Orleans residents leaving the Big Easy by foot with all of their belongings–or the ones they could grab–in knapsacks. Newly homeless people desperate for food, water, and shelter. Yet these people were the lucky ones: They survived Hurricane Katrina, a storm that may go down as the deadliest and costliest natural disaster in American history.
The late-August disaster left hundreds of thousands of people in Louisiana and Mississippi homeless, but before then, it challenged apartment owners with properties in the storm's path. Lane Cos. in Atlanta manages two properties in Pascagoula, Miss., an area pounded by the storm. Lane managers did encourage residents to go to shelters, but it was a hard sell, says Bob Landis, president of Lane Management. "With the communication difficulties, they haven't had the ability to call their friends and make other arrangements," he says.
But even places that escaped Katrina's damage were affected. Displaced residents of Louisiana and Mississippi dispersed throughout the country in search of places to stay, leading to housing crunches in markets like Houston. Finding shelter was not an easy task. Many survivors had little to survive on beyond whatever they escaped with from their homes. But apartment companies have been stepping up to help, says Jim Arbury, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Multi Housing Council in Washington, D.C. "It has been overwhelming," he says. "Everybody wants to do the right things. Everybody has signed on to no gouging, waiving any number of fees, minimum security deposits, and short-term rents."
Arbury points to Camden Property Trust in Houston, which donated 30 units and free utilities to the United Way to provide for hurricane evacuees. For anyone leaving the areas hit by the storm, Camden offered flexible lease terms with no penalty for leaving early, no application or administration fee, a surety bond of $87.50 rather than a security deposit of a month's rent or more, and the loosening of credit checks.
"We're still qualifying all individuals and running criminal background checks," says Laurie Baker, regional vice president for Camden. "We still have to respect all of our residents. They're thrilled we're moving these people in but want to know who their neighbor is."
Another firm, Harbor Group International in Norfolk, Va., is donating two apartments in each of its 24 properties free of charge to hurricane survivors. For others, it's offering reduced rents and no application fees. Though Harbor is running background checks, it's not running credit checks. "Providing shelter is one of the basic human needs," says Doug MacFarland, director of multifamily management for the company. "That's something these folks need. If we end up with some bad apples, I still figure that we will help out a lot more people than will get us hurt."
Apartment companies who own affordable units faced obstacles in their effort to assist Katrina victims. Those units require verification of household income, security deposits, minimum rent payments, and specialized leases, and they generally prohibit short-term rental periods. These restrictions create a headache when trying to help hurricane evacuees, who may not have the paperwork necessary to verify much of anything.
NMHC and other industry organizations have asked Congress for an emergency waiver that would apply to affordable-unit leases signed between Sept. 1 and Nov. 1, 2005, and would remain in effect until April 1, 2006, unless extended. "We want to get a lot of the proof-of-income restrictions waved for a short period of time so that people can be housed in suitable apartments," Arbury says.
How to Help Katrina Survivors
- www.hurricanehousing.net – For companies with apartments or housing available Louisiana or Mississippi.
- www.swern.gov – For companies with apartments or housing available outside of Louisiana or Mississippi.
- www.nmhc.org – To find model lease documents for hurricane evacuees and other pertinent information.
- www.fema.gov – To find information on temporary housing.
- www.apartments.com/katrina.htm – To list any special discounts or apartments available for hurricane evacuees.