An aftershock from Almeda
Survivors of the Almeda fire will face a new trauma starting April 1.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent letters to survivors saying they will have to pay “market rate” to continue staying in FEMA trailers.
Survivors, mostly low income, have not paid rent to FEMA as they go through the long process of recovering from the Sept. 8, 2020, fire.
FEMA said the move is mandatory because of the nature of temporary-housing limits, unless the state is successful in its request for an appeal of FEMA’s refusal to grant a rental waiver.
“I’m just so mad at how everybody is being treated,” said Teri Schuster, who lost her Talent townhouse in the fire and is now living in a two-bedroom FEMA trailer in Medford near Phoenix. “You really just want to put the finger up.”
The letter alerts survivors, some of whom earn as little as $600 a month on Social Security, that they need to pay $1,000 or more in rent. In Schuster’s case, she’s being asked to pay $1,195 for her FEMA trailer. She was paying $1,050 for her townhome but has since become unemployed.
Schuster has been struggling with a disability and has been living off the proceeds from her renter’s insurance and unemployment.
She said she has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder since the fire and has a hard time sleeping.
Schuster calculates that just with FEMA alone, she has made 47 phone calls and talked to 53 different people to deal with various fire-related issues.
At one point, she left her previous FEMA trailer after she said she was bullied by FEMA employees and moved to Pennsylvania to live with her biological father, whom she hadn’t met before.
He promised her a place to stay and offered to build a unit for her to live in.
“It was all a lie,” Schuster said.
Next she stayed with a friend in Colorado before moving back here, eventually ending up in another FEMA trailer, which she said has had numerous problems. All the moving around has eaten into the proceeds from her renter’s insurance.
Schuster said she is working with someone with Catholic Charities to file paperwork that could bring down the FEMA rent. Still she said the rent would likely be around $400 to $500, an amount that would be difficult to pay in her circumstances and would quickly deplete her insurance money.
She said FEMA has offered to sell the trailers to survivors.
“$50,000 is a lot to ask for this piece of junk,” she said.
Also, additional FEMA paperwork is required to help offset some of the cost for low-income survivors, possibly bringing the price to around $9,000, Schuster said.
“The community doesn’t understand what the fire survivors are going through, and what we’re going through with FEMA,” Schuster said.
Oregon officials sought a waiver for the FEMA rent increase, but it was denied, though an appeal has been filed.
Many of the survivors have been overwhelmed with paperwork, and to avoid an upcoming financial cliff, they will need to do more paperwork to help soften the blow of the increased rent.
For a three-bedroom recreational vehicle, apartment or trailer provided by FEMA, that could mean as much as $1,697 a month.
“This letter is very, very frightening,” said Caryn Wheeler-Clay, executive director of the Jackson County Community Long Term Recovery Group. “This is incredibly daunting to so many of our survivors.”
Her organization has helped Jackson County residents deal with the aftermath of the fire.
Wheeler-Clay said 89.6% of the fire survivors rely on some kind of government assistance, and 144 households are living in FEMA housing locally. In total, FEMA has 186 Oregon households who have been provided housing because of fires.
FEMA has sent letters to the households, but 21 were considered “no contact,” so FEMA is following up by sending letters by certified mail.
To file the necessary paperwork to get a rent reduction, survivors need to contact their disaster case manager. They can call 833-699-0554 to get connected to a case manager. ACCESS, a local organization that has helped fire survivors, can be reached at 541-414-0318 or via email at email@example.com.
Wheeler-Clay said fire survivors could end up paying as little as $50 a month, and that amount could be offset through local and state funds.
“Even $50 a month is a lot for some people,” she said.
During the appeal process, fire survivors will still be required to pay the increased rent starting April 1, though there are local and state funds available to help them cover those costs.
If someone is a fire survivor, they should have already been contacted by a case manager, Wheeler-Clay said.
In addition to financial struggles, fire survivors are contending with a housing shortage in Jackson County that was made far worse by the Almeda fire, Wheeler-Clay said.
Marquita Hynes, external affairs officer for FEMA, said the rent increase is mandatory because the temporary housing program is set up for 18 months, barring the granting of a waiver or appeal.
She said an appeal process undertaken by Oregon is underway, and she anticipates a decision before April 1.
In the meantime, she urges survivors to file the necessary paperwork to get their rent reduced.
“When you think what people have gone through, and everything the state has been going through, it does sound like an onerous process,” Hynes said.
She said FEMA staff are ready to work one-on-one with anybody who wants their rent reduced.
“I want to reiterate that people shouldn’t wait to get an adjustment on rent,” Hynes said.
She said the letter was sent out well in advance of the rent increase to provide survivors with enough time to seek the adjustments.
Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, said the letter has been a blow to the fire survivors in Jackson County. She said the rent hike appears to be retroactive, which means survivors will be paying for their March rent on April 1.
“As you can imagine, this has caused significant anxiety and trauma,” she said.
FEMA has not been able to bend its rules in a way that is helpful to the survivors, Marsh said.
The letter does provide information about applying for rent reduction, but Marsh said survivors need to react immediately by contacting their case manager.
“Our local advocates are also doing their best to help, but many people are just panicked,” Marsh said.
Reach freelance writer Damian Mann at firstname.lastname@example.org.