Tonya Boyd-Cannon, a singer/ songwriter, has performed at Jazz Fest and Essence Festival, and recently reached the final 20 performers on NBC’s talent show, The Voice. She is also a former sheriff’s deputy, and directed the inmate choir. Her husband John plays the tuba and was a founder of the Free Agents Brass Band after Hurricane Katrina.
They are keepers of New Orleans culture, but the home they bought as a young couple is gone, and their dreams for their family rest on the vacant lot where it stood, before the levees failed.
Just last month, in December 2015, HUD and the Louisiana Office of Community Development (OCD) issued final policies designed to help families, like the Cannons, who were unable to return home despite their best efforts. For the first time, federal disaster funds will be provided to those who spent thousands of dollars on temporary housing after their homes were destroyed. For many homeowners across Louisiana, this will be enough to return and rebuild. Nearly 700 families in the Lower 9th Ward may qualify.
This victory is the culmination of years of persistent advocacy by the Lower 9th Ward Homeownership Association (L9WHA), working closely with government officials and the nonprofit community. Four years ago, the L9WHA calculated that it would cost $20 million to bring our missing homeowners home—and discovered that that money was sitting in an account at HUD, which I wrote about here on Rooflines, and in Shelterforce. Our biggest hurdle to getting the money released was the Stafford Act’s Duplication of Benefits rules. But in November, 2011, HUD approved a “Clarification of Duplication of Benefits Requirements Under the Stafford Act” for CDBG-Disaster Recovery grantees. This clarification allows additional funding to be provided to grantees if they have Unmet Needs due to a subsequent change in circumstances. In 2013, an initial list of Unmet Needs was approved by HUD and OCD, including contractor fraud, insurance proceeds that were paid directly to the mortgage company, subsequent damage, and theft and vandalism. However, because the list was too limited and documentation requirements too tight, only a small number of families were helped by this policy change.
Two years later, we’ve finally gotten the bigger policy change we’ve been pushing for all along, the one that will really, finally, bring a significant number of families home. Take John and Tonya Boyd Cannon, for example. They have spent $48,000 on rent for three different apartments since the levee failures. When the Road Home Program replaces these lost funds and combines them with $80,000 under prior policies, they’ll have enough to build a new house on their vacant lot. Their son has started playing the trombone in his school band and their daughter is taking up singing, like her mother. Now they and hundreds of residents will be able to absorb the rhythms of New Orleans in their own homes again.