Donna Bartholomew’s mother moved to New Orleans as a young woman and bought a home in the Ninth Ward. Over the years, raising her children there, she taught them to love New Orleans the way she did. When she died at 81, Donna still lived with her, sharing life and love in the city they called home.
A few years later, after Donna had retired from her job as a maintenance supervisor at the Bell Jr. High School in Treme, the levee breaches of August 29, 2005 filled her home with 10 feet of water. . . . In exile in Mobile, Alabama, she set about trying to get back home. She received assistance through the Road Home Program, which was established by the State of Louisiana to distribute $9 billion in HUD funds for homeowners. Unfortunately, her grant came in 3 separate installments, stretched out from 2007 to 2010—none of which was large enough to complete the repair of her home. And like so many other residents, she was defrauded—in her case, of over $60,000—by one of the shady contractors that sprung up all over New Orleans like leaking pipes when billions of dollars started to pour into the city.
Most of the billions are gone now, but $119 million still sits unused at HUD. Under persistent pressure from advocates led by the Lower 9th Ward Homeownership Association, HUD approved policies in July 2013 that would allow additional funding for displaced homeowners who had, like Donna, been victims of circumstances beyond their control that prevented them from returning home.
Nearly two years later, only a smattering of the 7,000 families across the state that still aren’t home have been helped by the new program. For one thing, documentation requirements are too strict. It’s not surprising that fraudulent contractors didn’t give receipts and often required payment in cash—but the Road Home program won’t provide additional funding without receipts or cancelled checks. And secondly, the program doesn’t address the costs homeowners incurred as a result of the delay in returning home—especially the cost of paying rent somewhere else.
Donna was caught in this limbo. After years of deterioration, her home needs $90,000 worth of work. Though she was actually able to prove $45,000 in payments to the fraudulent contractor, it’s not enough. And because she spent over $50,000 in rent during all those years of delay after he ran off with her money, she can’t fill the gap herself.
On June 26, 2015—two months before the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina—displaced homeowners and their supporters converged on the HUD New Orleans Field Office to demand quick action by Secretary Julian Castro on two simple policy changes. They’re both allowed by existing law—and $119 million in funding is already available. Having worked with close to 200 homeowners in the Lower 9th Ward and throughout New Orleans, I know that these are the changes that will finally bring the missing families home:
1. Where documentation to prove the amount spent on contractor fraud or other circumstances beyond a homeowner’s control is unavailable, sworn homeowner affidavits certifying the use of funds should be accepted if supported by other evidence.
2. When a homeowner experienced unanticipated interim housing costs due to circumstances beyond their control, Road Home should provide funding to fill the gap.
It will be too late for Donna Bartholomew. She was diagnosed with cancer on a Monday in December and died that Friday. She could have beaten the cancer, her doctor said, except that the stress of trying to get back home had left her weakened. She’s become one more stress-related death in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “I feel like Road Home killed her,” her sister and best friend told me.
“Never forget where you came from,” Donna’s mother always told her. In the end, Donna Bartholomew finally came home to be buried.
No one else should die waiting for HUD to act.
This is our message for Secretary Castro.
(Photo of Donna Bartholomew provided by the Lower 9th Ward Homewownership Program)