JEFFERSON CITY - The Federal Emergency Management Agency said this week that it will keep emergency trailers in Joplin meant to shelter people whose homes were destroyed by the tornado that ripped through the city’s southern neighborhoods last May.
But starting in December, there will be one key change -- those trailers won’t be free anymore.
The federal government will begin charging rent—$595 per month for a 2-bedroom unit and $757 per month for a 3-bedroom unit, according to FEMA officials.
At least one Joplin lawmaker, Rep. Bill White, said that could present a big problem for many of the families still living in the trailers 18 months after the disaster. White said many of those families are low-income and cannot afford to pay fair market prices for housing, which is why they’re still living in the government trailers.
“If they could shoulder a $600-per-month rent bill, there are already places they could go,” besides the trailers, White said.
FEMA spokesman Michael Cappannari said the rates are based on a formula from another federal agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That formula is intended to find the “fair market” price of houses or apartments of a certain size in a certain geographical area.
"It's something that we use across the country,” Cappannari said from the agency’s Kansas City office. “We'll see what happens in the coming days and weeks based on appeals that we get."
White said he did support the idea of charging rent, adding that families should be transitioning back to a normal lifestyle this many months after the disaster. But he said the families in the trailers really need housing prices lower than the market average to match their incomes.
"If you have a single-parent family working a minimum-wage job, there isn't a lot of places you're going to be able to afford,” said White, a Republican.
Much of Joplin’s low-income housing stock was wiped out in the tornado, White said. While it is being rebuilt with the help of state grants, the effort has been going slowly and many of the new units are at least a year away from being inhabitable.
Tammy Walker, of the Economic Security Corporation of the Southwest Area, said some families have barriers such as joblessness or felony convictions, which bar them from the low-income housing that does exist in the city. Walker is the Director of Community Development at the ESC, a local government agency that is helping the families still in trailers find permanent housing.
Candy Newman, the Kansas City branch’s chief for individual assistance, said that families living in the trailers were given written notice this week of how much rent they could be charged if they are still living there in December.
The families have 60 days to file an appeal with FEMA officials in the state. Cappannari said agency officials will use a “holistic” process to determine whether families are eligible for a lower rent rate, but it was unclear what would happen to families who are unable to pay the proposed rent and have their appeals denied.
There are about 157 emergency trailers still in Joplin, down from 586 units immediately after the tornado. Those units house about 406 “authorized occupants,” according to FEMA spokeswoman Amanda Bicknell.