FEMA trailer symbol of post-Katrina Catch-22 in Harveyby Mark Waller, The Times-Picayune
Jefferson Parish wants to tear down his house, but a FEMA trailer is in the way. He wants to fix his house, but the parish's demolition order is in the way.
Charles Ayala's recovery from Hurricane Katrina has descended into one of the most confounding predicaments out of the thousands of people in Jefferson Parish who relied on FEMA trailers.
He is one of the last few residents lingering in a trailer long after Jefferson Parish began suing people, including him, to part with their units. He is fighting a court order to demolish his house because of blight. But the parish is blocked from tearing down the house -- because the federally issued trailer stands in the path of the bulldozers.
"Every beat of misfortune has not missed me since Aug. 29, 2005," Ayala said last week outside his house at 504 Second Avenue in Harvey, where a tree limb punched a hole in the roof during the hurricane and let rain inside. He said he also endured a bout with stomach cancer that forced him to stop working as a convenience-store manager, so he cannot afford to rent an apartment.
Ayala, who turns 49 on Monday, is caught in the waning days of Jefferson Parish's campaign to rid neighborhood streets of trailers, one of the most aggressive such efforts in the New Orleans area. About 10 units remain in unincorporated parts of the parish. More than 18,000 of them dotted Jefferson three years ago.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency itself has ended the trailer program. The cases that remain demonstrate some of the most tangled, intractable problems storm victims have faced.
Ayala said he believes the $67,000 in rebuilding money he received from the state's Road Home program is enough to fix his house. The demolition order, however, prevents him from securing building permits.
'It's not abandoned'
Jefferson Parish Attorney Tom Wilkinson said parish officials do not agree that Ayala's house is salvageable.
"The siding on the building is in disrepair and, in a number of places, the siding is missing, rotted and deteriorated, " says a 2008 petition against Ayala the parish filed in 24th Judicial District Court in Gretna. "There are parts of the structure which are missing the soffit and fascia. Parts of the roof are missing shingles. There are also holes in the roof causing the roof to be open to the weather. The exterior paint is chipping and peeling. The windows are not weather tight. The building also has termite damage and the floor joist is rotten."
Parish attorneys argue Ayala's house is a dangerous nuisance. Judge Steve Windhorst sided with the parish and issued a demolition order. The parish has a separate court order telling Ayala to remove the trailer, in accordance with parish codes against using travel trailers as dwellings in residential neighborhoods.
Ayala said he recently installed a new roof on the house, showing that he is trying make progress on repairing the house and leaving the trailer, which he says gives him nosebleeds because of the formaldehyde used in its construction.
His house last week still had a faded and peeling exterior. The front and rear yards were thick with vegetation, another code violation according to parish officials, but Ayala argued the plants are ornamental.
"It's not abandoned, " Ayala said. "It's not neglected. You've got an owner here who cares about his home. You don't go put a brand new roof on your home if you don't care about it."
Matthew Friedman, an assistant parish attorney handling FEMA trailer cases, said Ayala's situation has the parish at a standstill.
"He probably couldn't fix the house with the trailer there, anyway," Friedman said.
Asked whether the parish might sue FEMA to remove its property, he said, "All legal avenues are open."
A spokeswoman for FEMA referred questions about moving the last trailer residents to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which now manages disaster housing cases. Neill Coleman, a HUD spokesman, said residents can apply for Section 8 housing vouchers to help them secure new accommodations.
Ayala said he previously spoke with FEMA officials about the rental assistance program that has since ended, but he felt he couldn't afford the portion of the rent he would have had to pay.
And, of course, they'll tear down his house if he leaves the trailer.
Alice Riener, an attorney with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, is helping Ayala try to extract himself from this puzzle, primarily by petitioning the court to remove the demolition order so Ayala can get permits to renovate the house.
Riener argued the parish is placing Ayala in a difficult situation by declaring his house more than 50 percent damaged, requiring him to rebuild under higher codes with greater costs, such as elevating the structure. Noting that the house didn't suffer any flooding, Riener said it is not damaged to such an extent.
"It's a very serious thing to have a house demolished, " she said. "If it gets demolished, he won't have the money to rebuild."
Wilkinson said the parish continues to explore all options for resolving the impasse, but he said: "Our hands are basically tied."
Ayala said stress from the ordeal has caused him to suffer depression and lose weight.
"If all the parish did was get off my back, I could turn my life around, " using the Road Home money, Ayala said.
"They will ruin my life savings; they will ruin my financial future, " he said. "If they succeed, I will be converted into an indigent, homeless pauper."