Foreclosed homes as hurricane housing?

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauJune 4, 2009 

TALLAHASSEE — The state’s top disaster-management official has a use for all those foreclosed homes in Florida: temporary hurricane housing.

“This option didn’t exist two or three years ago before the real-estate market crashed,” said Ruben Almaguer, interim director of Florida’s emergency management division.

“We can’t not look at something staring us directly in the face. It’s a solution to a potential problem.”

Almaguer asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to consider the proposal this week during a mock-disaster drill that spotted vulnerabilities in the state’s emergency response plans.

The mock drill’s scenario: a Category 4 storm nearly bankrupts the state, displaces 1 million residents, and destroys homes and schools.

During the week-long exercise, Almaguer said, it didn’t take long for the 250 state, federal and local officials to figure out that neither Florida nor FEMA has enough shelter space to house the newly homeless.

Florida has about 250,000 homes in the process of foreclosure and up to 300,000 unsold homes on the market.

In Manatee County, there are 1,103 bank-owned properties. according to RealtyTrac.com. The number of empty homes, which could possibly be used to house storm victims, could be much greater. This year alone through May 31, there have been 2,620 foreclosure filings.

Realtor May Aston of the ReMax Alliance Group in Bradenton had not heard of the storm-housing idea when contacted late Wednesday by the Bradenton Herald, but said, “It’s a good idea in theory.

“But these properties have no furniture in them. Where would people sleep?”

She said it wouldn’t surprise her to have 7,000 foreclosed properties in Manatee County — RealtyTrac.com listed 7,073 foreclosed properties in Manatee County — but the number of usable homes for storm victims would be much smaller.

There would be “only a select few that would be available for rent,” she said.

The idea is still being developed, but FEMA would contact banks, other mortgage holders and their representatives to compile a list of available homes, the Associated Press reported. The evacuees would then be assigned homes close to their own, and FEMA would use a contractor, acting as its agent, to pay rent directly to whoever owns the home, Jon Arno, FEMA’s individual assistance branch director for Florida told AP.

Using the foreclosed homes is an example of using whatever shelter is available, said Almaguer. Six years ago, he noted, the notion of using cruise ships as shelter space seemed out of the question but now it’s a recognized option. Almaguer said other issues to emerge from Wednesday’s exercise included a suggestion that the state must ensure it can tap the credit market in a crisis.

Jeff Bryant, FEMA’s federal coordinating official in Florida, was cautious Wednesday about the potential of using using foreclosed homes as hurricane shelters. He stressed that -- for now -- the idea is just one of many to come from this week’s hurricane exercise at the Tallahassee Emergency Operations Center. He said FEMA will explore it over the weeks to come.

“In the event of something like that, you have to look at every available option,” Bryant said. “But we need to talk to our legal authorities. We need to talk to our federal agencies.”

There are lots of questions about how the use of the homes would work, including liability issues and whether the banks holding the homes would be amenable.

Tampa-based foreclosure attorney Scott Stamatakis pointed out that it might be difficult to find out who owns the foreclosed properties. Some are controlled by investors who limit their use.

Obtaining the use of a large number of foreclosed homes after a hurricane might also be complicated because it would involve negotiating with numerous banks, said Broward County’s housing director Ralph Stone.

“I think it would be a whole lot of work,” he said. “I think it’s much easier said than done.”

— Herald editor Gary Taylor contributed to this report.

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