10 Years Later: The Fight for Overdue Justice

A previous version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2007 edition of the TRLA Times.

The Evictions Start
In Summer 2006, TRLA law clerks, paralegals, and attorneys started to receive a trickle of phone calls. A handful of hurricane evacuees in Austin had found eviction notices placed on their doors. For months, as part of FEMA’s short-term housing program, cities across Texas paid rent to landlords for evacuees staying in apartments and motels while evacuees applied for long-term FEMA housing assistance. But when FEMA announced its plans to end its short-term housing program, some evacuees faced losing the roofs over their heads.

“We started seeing eviction cases in June and July,” said TRLA Housing attorney Kelli Howard. “Evacuees who had not qualified for long-term housing assistance had 30 days to move out from the only shelter they had.”

Many evacuees facing eviction claimed they had been denied benefits for unclear reasons. Evacuees showed TRLA staff their denial letters: instead of a clear explanation, FEMA had listed a cryptic, three-letter computer code as the stated reason for the denial, referring evacuees to a FEMA guide book for additional
information. TRLA client Joseph Douglas received the following explanation: “IIO-Ineligible-Other.”

TRLA’s attempts to help evacuees confirm why their housing benefits had been denied proved fruitless. The letters did not include information regarding how to correct any problems with submitted applications, and FEMA representatives did not consistently interpret the meaning of FEMA’s codes.

“In July, we wrote FEMA a detailed letter explaining why their benefit ineligibility notices were inadequate,” said TRLA attorney Jerome Wesevich. “FEMA didn’t want to listen.”

Making the Case
The Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution states that no person shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” Previous court cases, including a district court ruling in a class action suit filed against FEMA in November
2005, supported the contention that hurricane evacuees had a constitutionally protected property interest when applying for housing benefits.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently required agencies to clearly explain their reasons for a denial of benefits in time to allow affected individuals to appeal the agency’s decision,” added Wesevich. “FEMA’s vague and unintelligible letters were an affront to the basic rights of thousands of evacuees.”

In response, TRLA and Public Citizen, a national, nonprofit legal advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C, filed suit in federal district court in August 2006 against FEMA.

TRLA advocates argued that FEMA had violated the due process rights of evacuees by denying their housing benefits without adequately explaining why and failing to explain what evacuees could do to fix any problems with their applications for continued housing assistance.

“By using a computer code instead of the English language, FEMA made what appeared to be a deliberate choice to place barriers between desperate families and the housing that Congress said they should have,” Wesevich said.

Vindication
After months of waiting, a decision was rendered. In his 19-page opinion, Judge Leon ruled in favor of the evacuees, writing that FEMA had indeed violated basic due process rights by sending notices that “did not adequately communicate FEMA’s reasoning for its determinations to deny benefits.”

“It is unfortunate, if not incredible, that FEMA and its counsel could not devise a sufficient notice system to spare these beleaguered evacuees the added burden of federal litigation to vindicate their constitutional rights,” Leon wrote.

Since the ruling, approximately 4,000 families have received new letters with more complete explanations and information regarding how to appeal FEMA’s decision. At least 1,069 evacuee households have had their status changed from ineligible to eligible because of the case. The benefits for these households have been extended through August 2007.

TRLA advocates hope the long-term impact of TRLA’s collaboration will help protect future survivors of natural disasters when they apply for benefits.

“This decision helped Katrina and Rita survivors, but its greatest impact has yet to be felt,” Wesevich said. “FEMA will have to provide better housing services to low-income families in all future disasters as a result or face similar challenges in courts of record and the court of public opinion.”

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