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Housing woes still buffet Gulf's storm-tossed lives

Dwellings unfixed as evictions rise

Greg Dedeaux recently showed the damage to his Gulfport, Miss., apartment, where he lives with his mother.
Greg Dedeaux recently showed the damage to his Gulfport, Miss., apartment, where he lives with his mother. (Boston Globe Photo / Jerry Ward)

Collapsed ceilings, falling sheetrock, and no water or electricity drove Greg Dedeaux out of his Gulfport, Miss., apartment after Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast three months ago. For two weeks, the 52-year-old truck driver slept in his 1995 Jeep Cherokee.

Spurred by a rumor that displaced tenants didn't have to pay rent, he didn't write his monthly $345 check. His information was wrong. Dedeaux's landlord filed an eviction notice, and a housing court ruled that he pay or vacate the premises. Dedeaux paid, and is now sleeping on a living room couch since his two bedrooms are cluttered with debris. His 76-year-old mother, who moved in with him after the hurricane, is sleeping on a cot in a hallway outside the bathroom.

''I didn't think it was fair, but I had no other choice," Dedeaux, who believes his rent should have been waived or reduced because of his apartment's condition, said in a telephone interview. ''This isn't just happening to me and the apartment complex I'm in. It's the whole Gulf Coast."

Housing woes in the aftermath of the devastating Atlantic hurricane season are causing a fresh wave of trauma on the Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama coastlines, where more than 300,000 houses were destroyed or badly damaged, according to the National Association of Home Builders. In some of the smallest, poorest coastal communities, every home was lost.

The problems are exacerbated by a drastic shortage of legal aid for the poor, many of whom can't afford lawyers or don't know how to find them. The resulting legal crisis prompted the president of the American Bar Association to warn that the hurricanes may have triggered ''one of the greatest legal services crises in the history of this country."

Among the mounting hardships:

A pressing need for emergency shelter and long-term housing, especially affordable units.

A sharp increase in evictions.

An expected deluge of mortgage foreclosures now that many foreclosure moratoriums have ended.

Lenders continue to demand mortgage payments on houses that have been destroyed.

Dramatic rent increases and price gouging.

The housing emergency joins a dispiriting litany of other hurricane-related troubles, including massive job losses, damaged infrastructure that has severely hindered transportation, and mental and physical health problems such as depression and a pervasive respiratory ailment dubbed ''Katrina cough." Meanwhile, aid workers say despair is settling over the region as coastal residents sense that the country's interest in their plight has faded. As residents trickle back to communities, they are often finding that a shocking scene awaits them.

''The largest issues are evictions and foreclosures, and we're also seeing people returning home and discovering that the locks have been changed on their apartments, their possessions have been confiscated, and somebody able to pay two or three times the rent is living in their place," said Karen Lash, a lawyer with Equal Justice Works, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit group that is raising money to send 15 lawyers to live and work on the Gulf Coast for two years to help hurricane victims with legal problems.

''So three months later the situation is in many ways more dire than it was when the nation's attention was so focused on what was happening along the coast."

The most immediate need is emergency housing for the hundreds of thousands of displaced residents still living in tents and shelters or with friends and relatives. Countless more people face confusing legal issues that are pitting tenants against landlords. Some property owners are evicting renters to make room for their own families or to allow contractors to begin repairs. Others are ousting long-time tenants to make way for higher-paying occupants, including government workers and construction crews armed with generous housing subsidies.

''Landlords are jacking the rents up . . . which is a legitimate business decision," said Michael Andrews, director of temporary housing for Mississippi's Harrison County, one of the hardest-hit areas, ''but it's causing more frustration with our housing needs."

Many tenants complain that landlords have continued to charge rent for damaged apartments and have ejected residents unable or unwilling to pay, according to housing advocates and lawyers working with hurricane victims. Many property owners, faced with substantial repair costs and uninsured losses, say they have little choice. A major source of dispute is what is habitable and what is not.

Gulfport landlord David Crittenden, who owns the 14-unit complex where Dedeaux lives, acknowledged that Dedeaux's apartment needs a ''major restoration" but said the unit must be vacated before repairs begin. As long as Dedeaux remains in the apartment, he said, repairs cannot be done.

''People are staying in unsafe apartments all throughout this area, and that's just going to prolong the housing problem," Crittenden said in a telephone interview.

Crittenden, who has been told it will cost at least $120,000 to repair the complex fully, said he has yet to receive any insurance payments and has used a personal loan from a relative to replace the roof. He said he gave his tenants 25-day deferments on their rent payments but -- noting that organizations such as FEMA, the Red Cross, and the Salvation Army were offering rental assistance -- began eviction proceedings against tenants who failed to pay.

''The way I understand the law, if you occupy the apartment you have to pay rent -- and you can't not pay rent and hold up renovation of the place," he said. ''Some people are saying their apartments aren't up to community standards, but you've got to understand that the community standard in Gulfport is now a tent."

Dedeaux notes that since the hurricane, Crittenden has rented several units to contractors for $700 a month -- more than twice what he's paying -- and that multiple contractors are living in each unit. On one recent evening, the complex's parking lot was crowded with 11 work vehicles and 10 pallets of shingles, Dedeaux said.

''Instead of trying to help the tenants who lived here before, he started bringing in contractors and doubling the rent," complained Dedeaux, who said he plans to move once he receives the government-funded trailer he requested more than two months ago. Crittenden counters that he hasn't raised rents of any existing tenants, even though some of them have let relatives move in with them, causing the water, sewer, and garbage pickup bills, which Crittenden pays, to increase markedly.

Both men acknowledge that the situation is a difficult one. ''Just like he wants his rent money, I want to live in my apartment in comfort," Dedeaux said. Said Crittenden: ''The whole area down here is one big construction or demolition site . . . but am I going to slash rent when my bills went up?"

Like Dedeaux, many residents are choosing to remain in damaged properties rather than try to find new lodging.

''Remember the context: There's no other housing. So where else do you go?" said John Jopling, a lawyer for the Mississippi Center for Justice, a Jackson legal advocacy group that recently opened an office in Biloxi, Miss., to assist coastal residents. ''Even though your apartment may be destroyed, it's preferable to a shelter or a tent."

Gulf Coast housing laws generally favor landlords and property owners, according to lawyers in the region. Mississippi, for example, permits landlords to oust tenants with three days notice in certain circumstances, even if they have leases.

Few private attorneys are willing to represent tenants in eviction cases because they often involve poor clients unable to pay for services. That means the onus falls on pro bono practitioners and legal aid organizations, of which the region has few. Mississippi's federally funded legal aid office has only three attorneys serving the state's six southernmost counties, which had a combined population of about 460,000 before Katrina hit, and the nonprofit Mississippi Center for Justice has only two part-time attorneys serving the coast, said the center's Jopling.

Dita McCarthy, director of fair housing for Mississippi Legal Services, said she recently represented a Spanish-speaking woman in Biloxi facing eviction for nonpayment of rent. The woman was unable to read a clause in her lease, written in English, that granted rent abatements for damages, and her landlord was charging full rent even though her apartment was still storm-damaged. In court, McCarthy got the woman's rent reduced.

Tenants without legal representation often fare worse. Jopling recently represented several tenants facing eviction and won them the right to stay in their apartments if they paid overdue rent. But he said that a dozen other tenants without lawyers were evicted by the same judge and told to vacate their apartments in 48 hours.

''People are facing evictions because they haven't paid rent on apartments that don't have electricity, don't have gas, don't have useable water and perhaps have broken windows, a damaged roof and insulation sagging from the ceiling," Jopling said. ''So it wasn't unreasonable to believe that a landlord might cut you some slack."

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at pfeiffer@globe.com.

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