Decline in housing units means progress for FEMA

The number of occupied temporary housing units is declining in the Minot area at a rate faster than officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency expected.

Tom Carroll, recovery division director with FEMA in Denver, said the current 544 occupied units is about the number that FEMA was projecting to reach by the end of January. The occupied units include 315 at Virgil Workman Village, 122 on private sites, 79 on commercial sites and 28 at DeSour Valley Heights in Burlington.

“We do expect a continued decline as more people are able to finish repairs on their homes,” Carroll said in Minot Thursday.

FEMA’s numbers don’t include units that residents have purchased and continue to call home.

There have been 24 sales, with 16 more that could close at the end of the week, Carroll said. FEMA expects a few hundred occupants to look into buying their units. FEMA is encouraging occupants to go through the sale process if their future situations remain uncertain because that paperwork could open the doors to other options later.

One of the options that could become available hinges on the Minot Housing Authority accepting donated units from FEMA to operate as low-income rental housing. The housing authority is investigating the feasibility of a federal voucher plan for the units.

An arrangement with the housing authority is important because a housing shortage and high market rents have been an issue for many displaced households, especially those with pets.

“Almost half are looking at renting as their long-term solution,” Carroll said. “That becomes an issue, particularly with the housing market.”

Carroll said there was potential at the end of December for 250 to 270 households to benefit from a housing authority project. However, those numbers could decline if people find other housing solutions, he said. So it is unknown how many units the housing authority might operate, but the discussion is for FEMA to donate 250.

FEMA looks to complete any donations and its sales program by June 24, when its housing mission is set to end. The State of North Dakota can request an extension beyond June 24 if glitches arise in the transition plans that risk putting some people out on the street.

Currently, though, progress is being made. The sudden, rapid transition out of the FEMA units began after FEMA announced that it will charge rent in 2013. Many occupants responded by accelerating their home rebuilding activities.

Rent is based on market rates and ability to pay. The cost of a person’s existing mortgage is taken into consideration. Rents in Minot are ranging from the minimum rate of $50 a month to $952 a month.

There have been 173 appeals over the rates, Carroll said. Of those, 24 have been resolved so far.

FEMA’s offering price in the sales program is based on depreciation factors and existing condition of individual units. Occupants have a chance to negotiate price based on ability to pay. FEMA will not sell for less than 25 percent of its purchase price for the units, Carroll said.

Occupants in group sites must relocate the purchased units, but units on the homeowner’s property can stay through June. The Minot City Council is considering a proposal to allow the units to remain on homeowner lots until Oct. 1 and possibly longer if residents obtain special permits.

As people move out of FEMA units, the units are removed to a staging area at the fairgrounds. Carroll said none are going to Hurricane Sandy survivors on the East Coast because of the damage that can occur in transporting them that distance. That area is receiving units already located in the east, although lack of property for placement has limited the number of units being set up.

Many of the decommissioned larger units used in Minot are going to tribes through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The smaller park models are being sold through the General Services Administration.

Carroll said the region’s housing shortage, expensive construction and shortage of contractors have resulted in Minot’s temporary units being vacated at a slower rate overall than might occur in a typical disaster. Minot, which peaked at 2,043 FEMA units, is down to about 27 percent of that number. In comparison, Joplin Mo., which started with 500 units after its May 2011 tornado, was down to almost 10 percent of the total a year and a half later.

FEMA still has nearly 50 employees working in its Minot office, of which about three-quarters have come from outside the Minot area.