Legal Aid lawyer helps stranded Florence survivors find new homes

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WILSON · July 18, 2019—Thanks to Katashia Cooper, an attorney in Wilson with our Disaster Relief Project, scores of Hurricane Florence survivors will receive valuable relocation assistance packages to help them find new homes.

What ended up as a big win benefiting scores of tenants started as a small case involving one renter with a humble request: Can you help me get my security deposit back?

This tenant—Katashia’s client—is an elderly woman who, before Florence hit, was living in Cypress Village apartments, a public housing complex in Columbus County. Her daughter, who doubles as an in-home aide, lives with her.

Cypress Village was no match for Florence. “The entire complex was destroyed,” said Katashia. “Several units were completely flooded—mold, water damage—just unlivable conditions. They couldn’t return to their apartment.”

Immediately after the storm, FEMA put the tenants up in hotels as part of the agency’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance program. The program is supposed to provide short-term lodging assistance for survivors, but the Cypress Village tenants were stuck in their hotels for months.

The problem was that the owner of Cypress Village decided not to rebuild the complex. Since Florence left little other habitable low-income housing in the area, the former tenants had nowhere to go.

In March, nearly half a year after the storm hit, the former Cypress Village tenants were still in their hotels, but their FEMA assistance was running out. What to do?

Our client worked the phones, trying to get an explanation from the complex owner and property manager, but no one returned her calls. With nowhere else to turn, she came to us for help.

All she wanted was her security deposit back. She figured she was on her own when it came to finding new housing, and she just wanted as much money as possible to find a decent place.

“I coached her through writing a demand letter and sending it by certified mail to her property manager,” Katashia said. Thanks to Katashia’s guidance, the letter worked, and our client got her security deposit back.

Katashia wasn’t finished. “This was public housing. How can the owner just not rebuild?” Katashia said. Cypress Village was privately owned, but the owner participated in the Section 8 voucher program run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The program provides real benefits to landlords—guaranteed monthly rent payments courtesy of the federal government—but there are strings attached.

“I didn’t think that a Section 8 landlord could just choose not to rebuild,” said Katashia, so she contacted HUD. After some administrative back-and-forth, Katashia got the good news: HUD was putting together a relocation assistance team to help the tenants find new homes.

On May 29, the HUD team met with about 20 tenants at the office of the Columbus County Housing Authority and unveiled the details of the tenants’ relocations packages: housing vouchers the tenants could use for reduced rent payments in any rental property on the private market, money to cover the security deposit payment at their new home, moving expenses ($1,050 for a one-bedroom), a $100 transportation allowance, $100 to cover application fees for their new homes, and a $100 allowance for miscellaneous expenses.

Katashia’s client, who relocated to South Carolina in May, is thrilled at the outcome, but Katashia—ever persistent—is not quite done advocating for her client. “My client has been paying for storage since September, and she has some other expenses. She has kept meticulous receipts. I’m still in touch with the HUD team.”