Many African Americans Finally Find Road Home

posted on: July 8, 2011

If foundation leaders want to know the value of investing in advocacy and organizing, they need look no further than post-Katrina New Orleans. If not for the persistence of grassroots leaders and their national allies, a federal-state home reconstruction program would have continued to deny relief to thousands of African American and low-income homeowners who could not afford to rebuild their homes after the hurricanes.


After Hurricane Katrina, the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center very quickly determined that the new Road Home Program – the largest housing recovery program in U.S. history – would have discriminatory impact because it awarded home reconstruction grants based on the value of a house, not the cost to rebuild it. Two identical houses in different neighborhoods would get different amounts of money: most white homeowners would be able to access up to the full grant amount of $150,000, while many African Americans would get far less, making it impossible for them to restore their homes.


With technical assistance and support from the National Fair Housing Alliance and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the center sued the state of Louisiana and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The case was settled yesterday, although much of the relief already occurred because of ongoing organizing that led to program changes while the case was working its way through the courts. First the program established Additional Compensation Grants (ACGs) for low and moderate income homeowners, but these were capped at $50,000 per home. Subsequently, the cap was lifted to $150,000, and to date more than $2 billion has been disbursed through the supplemental grants of which $473 million was disbursed after the cap was raised, benefiting 13,000 homeowners. According to the New York Times, yet another program was recently put in place, which will disburse an additional $62 million, helping 1,400 more homeowners and giving them another year to reoccupy their homes.


Debby Goldberg at the National Fair Housing Alliance said the lesson for grantmakers is that in the wake of a disaster, it’s important to support grassroots organizations on the ground, as well as their national partners, so that together they can dig in quickly to understand the implications of proposed relief programs. The Road Home program was launched rapidly after a 15-day comment period, during which local leaders were scrambling to try to understand its likely impact. These advocates were determined to ensure that all homeowners would be put on equal footing, and none would be at a disadvantage because of their property values.


Foundation leaders who have supported these champions can help ensure that disaster recovery planners do not reinvent the wheel but rather learn from this case study. For example, thanks to these groups’ determination to achieve fairness, HUD is now being more attentive to achieving equity for low-income and people of color communities in other disaster recovery zones, such as Texas.


Lisa Ranghelli is the director of NCRP’s Grantmaking for Community Impact Project. The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center is featured in the recent report, Strengthening Democracy, Increasing Opportunities: The Impacts of Advocacy, Organizing and Civic Engagement in the Gulf/Midsouth written by Frontline Solutions.