Thursday, January 17, 2008

Part five: What's the frequency, Kenneth?

A continuation of the How's the house coming? saga...

When we moved with our Precious Daughter and two cats into the FEMA Travel Trailer, we thought it was the right idea. We thought we would soon be building a new house, and that although a bit cramped, it would be worth it to be there to oversee and help during the construction. But that dream evaporated many months ago, and the grand adventure of living like New Orleans pioneers was just not so grand anymore.

At the same time as all that tomfoolery with Road Home was going on, I was also enjoying a lively negotiation with our Disaster Assistance loan from the Small Business Administration. SBA had told us up front that there were few rules regarding our relocation, that they just wanted to help us get into a comparable house, that we were already approved so the paperwork wouldn't take long at all. And I stupidly believed them.

The shifting rules and roadblocks began as soon as they received a copy of the purchase agreement for their review and approval. The first thing SBA told me was that since I was no longer rebuilding, our case had to be reassigned to the Relocation Team. So the person I had spoken to, the person who had given me advice and counsel regarding the process for buying a house was not the right person to talk to at all. Once reassigned to a case manager on the Relocation Team, multiple issues began to spring up.

For instance, my damaged property was in a flood zone, which made me eligible for a relocation loan--but so was the new property. The fact that the house had not flooded in Katrina was not relevant. According to the flood map, the new house was in a flood hazard area. Now, keep in mind that the theoretical flood map was drawn to indicate the potential flooding to the so-called 100-year flood, whereas the house had survived the very real and actual Hurricane Katrina flood, which is estimated to be something near the 400-year event.

What if I obtained a survey to prove that the floor elevation was above the theoretical 100-year elevation? Wouldn't matter, I was told. All we look at is the map.

Net result: our disaster assistance loan eligibility was lowered. I certainly understand the reason for the disincentive to move from one flood zone to another, but clearly that is not what I am doing since the new house is above the base flood elevation. Unfortunately, all SBA cares about is the line on the map.

I did get a surveyor out there to give me elevations, and sure enough the house is above the base flood elevation. And while one arm of the federal government (SBA) is indifferent to this fact, another arm of the government (FEMA) offered us flood insurance at a lower rate.

With a decrease in SBA funding and the inability of Road Home to properly close on our grant, it was beginning to look doubtful that we would be able to purchase the house we had under contract. But we persisted, in part because we really liked the house and the neighborhood, and also because we had already spent about $1,000 on various inspections. The sellers remained graciously patient as we sorted out the details, but we knew they would not wait forever.

At this same time, I pointed out to SBA that if their goal was to help us purchase a "comparable house," we would in fact need more money. The amount of our loan had been calculated using pre-Katrina valuations, and as anyone can tell you, those numbers just don't apply anymore. I pointed out that not only were housing prices up, but prices in the unflooded areas of the city were higher than before Katrina, too. I pointed out that I had actual recent quotes for building a new house that could support my argument. My SBA case worker was sympathetic. "Send me your documentation and we should be able to help."

I sent in the construction cost estimates described previously and waited for the response. And waited. And waited.

It turns out the SBA case worker really doesn't have any authority to make any decisions. The case worker is simply the receptionist and mail clerk. You call, and they answer the phone. You send documents, and they route it to the responsible person. In this case, the documentation I provided was sent to the Loss Verification officer. After a long wait, I asked the case worker if I could speak to this person to see what was causing the delay. No, I was told, only when the Loss Verification officer was ready.

Finally I got the call. And the answer was, "Yes, we will increase your loan $5,000." But that's not even enough to cover inflation, I protested. What about the documentation I provided? "We cannot consider outside information," the Loss Verification worker said. "We have our own methods of calculating local market conditions." Okay, so why did my case worker tell me to send in documentation? "I don't know," she said.

Net result: it was a colossal waste of time and effort.

With the patience of Job, I spoke to my case worker about this. "I guess I was mistaken," he said. I have since fantasized about going all "Ashley Morris" on him, but know that no one can approach the greatness of the master and it probably would not have helped anyway.

But here's the thing: I do not want to sound ungrateful. SBA has offered to give us a loan for a great rate, a rate that is really going to help us buy a house that we can live in for years to come. Although my family was the victim of a major catastrophe, I do not consider myself "entitled" or "due" any reparations. I very much appreciate the assistance offered via SBA as a genuine act of kindness from my fellow Americans and our government. So all the while I'm wrenching with frustration, I have to keep reminding myself to not lose sight of the fact that this is public assistance, a kind of charity.

I am truly thankful for the help. But then again, why can't I get correct information? Why aren't these rules and procedures public information? This has been dragging on for 5 months--can't they help me any faster?

One night after dinner, our Precious Daughter said, "I'm going to my room to read." She walked the five feet from the table to her bed, and climbed into the pigeon hole of the lower bunk. At that moment I felt despair for myself and my family for the first time since returning to New Orleans in late September 2005.

Part six: House of mirrors or house of cards?


Editor B said...

This is an epic saga. If you had written it in bits and pieces along the way, I'd still feel for you, but this way has more impact. Is there another part coming?

daneeta loretta said...

I came to your blog through Mr. Clio (both Loyola Alumni: Go Wolves!). I am so saddened by your story. Our government has lost sight of how it's ineptitude affects real people. I'm sending you good vibrations as it is all I can do save going all "Ashley Morris."

Ashley said...

That line your daughter said just drove it home. These are human beings that are caught in this bureaucratic nightmare and are suffering because of greed and incompetence. It's more than sad.

And let me know if you want help in going all "me" on them.

Leigh C. said...

That broke my heart, too. Y'all be well.

Marco said...

I am looking at the cost of occupation out of the corner of my eye. It's a low down dirty shame. One that the people of this country will have to deal with sooner or later. Peace and courage.