'Road Home' repayment demands rile homeowners

A crowd of furious homeowners filled the New Orleans City Council chamber Monday evening to cheer on state lawmakers interrogating the officials responsible for sending out thousands of letters last month demanding repayment of Road Home grants.

Members of the New Orleans legislative delegation, including state Sens. Ed Murray, Karen Carter Peterson and J.P. Morrell and Rep. Jared Brossett, demanded to know why the state is asking for the money back when many homeowners claim they have sent in the necessary documentation to prove they followed the program’s rules and used the money to rebuild their storm-ravaged homes.

The meeting was only the latest show of outrage over a program that has been beset by controversy since its inception, criticized for not providing enough money to replace what was damaged and often leaving homeowners open to abuse by unscrupulous contractors.

Pat Forbes, who administers the federally funded Road Home program as head of the state Office of Community Development, could say only that the 23,493 people who got the letters received them because their file is missing one or more documents that would bring them into compliance with the program’s guidelines.

Forbes said the letters went out in January after an original deadline in November, giving residents another 30 days to send in documents. After that deadline, he said, another letter will go out, this time allowing a 15-day window before the “recapture” process begins, although he did not spell out exactly what will happen then.

He said the program would work with homeowners at any point in the process to try to bring them into compliance.

That explanation did little to assuage the lawmakers.

Murray, chairman of the Select Committee on Hurricane Recovery, said he has received numerous calls from distraught homeowners. He noted that his office on Broad Street was copied on many of the packets of information that homeowners sent in, and “my filing cabinets are overflowing with information.”

“I’ve had people call my office, a lot of people, to say, ‘We sent in the letter or the documents to show compliance, but we still received a letter,’ ” Murray said. “How can constituents track this? Do they need to send it certified mail? What needs to happen to make sure they know you received it? I just don’t believe this many people, taxpayers, citizens are lying about this stuff.”

Lara Robertson, a deputy of Forbes, told Murray that anyone who thinks they received a letter of noncompliance in error should get in touch with the program’s call center “right away,” a remark that drew a mixture of laughter and angry catcalls from homeowners who had obviously spent time on the phone over the issue already.

Robertson said the Road Home program has a full-time staff of 15 people scanning documents from homeowners with a turnaround time of about 24 hours.

Murray continued to press her over the apparent discrepancy between what the program is claiming and what homeowners say.

“I received the documents,” Murray said. “They copied me on it, and they still get letters from y’all saying the information was not sent in. I can’t imagine why I received it and you all didn’t.”

Robertson acknowledged that the program has received replies to its letters from many homeowners, but added, “Unfortunately, sometimes not all of the paperwork is included or something’s not signed, and so we have to reach back out to the homeowner and say, ‘Hey we need these documents.’ ”