FEMA housing logjam broken in St. Martinville

By Ken Grissom

t_news@bellsouth.net

ST. MARTINVILLE – Louisiana System Built Homes, the housing manufacturer in the old Martin Mills plant north of town, will get an order within the next two weeks for 40 “Katrina” homes, according to an agreement hammered out by state officials, legislators and contractors meeting here Monday.

“If we’re successful with these 40 houses – if we can perfect the funding process – then there will be more opportunities (for LSBH) ahead,” said state Rep. Fred Mills of Breaux Bridge, who moderated the meeting.

LSBH currently employes 70 to 100 people, according to its president, John Stege. He said that at full capacity, building four houses a day, it would employ up to 400.

Mills said the Louisiana Recovery Authority and its prime contractor, Cypress Realty Partners, agreed to pay for work done each and every month.

Sluggish or uncertain funding has been the logjam in the $400 million Alternative Housing Pilot Program, not just for the local builder but for the whole state.

“Mississippi built 3,000 and Louisiana built one,” said state Sen. Butch Gautreaux of Morgan City, one of several state legislators who attended Monday’s meeting.

“They got paid 15 days after completion, the opposite of what happened here,” Gautreaux said.

But a direct comparison to Mississippi’s experience with the Alternative Housing Pilot Program is not fair, said LRA executive director Paul Rainwater.

“Mississippi chose modular homes, essentially house on wheels, and it’s been a mixed bag,” Rainwater said. “Some of the houses have already been flooded.”

Louisiana’s route of site-built, permanent cottages creates extra layers of federal red tape in the form of title and environmental issues, he said.

“It’s a very bureaucratic process,” Rainwater said.

He also pointed out that it was one that he and his boss, Gov. Bobby Jindal, inherited.

A group of architects meeting in Biloxi in October 2005 came up with the idea of replacing FEMA trailers with something a little more permanent. The 2006 Emergency Appropriations Act provided the funding, and proposals came in to FEMA from all five Gulf states.

In Louisiana, the nod and a $74.5 million grant went to the Cypress Group, a private lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., to build 500 homes with steel framing and cement siding engineered to withstand wind up to 140 mph. Cypress partnered with the Lowe’s home improvement stores for the materials and subcontracted to Donnie Jarreau Construction of Baton Rouge to actually build the houses.

“We can build them as strong or stronger and a lot faster,” said LSHB founder Aubrey Shoemake, an oilfield personnel provider who himself lost a Gulf Coast home to Katrina and determined to bring his entrepreneurial talents to the housing problem.

Shoemake and his investors bought the million-square-foot former underwear factory and equipped it to crank out 15 -by-50-foot module is built with walls of expanded polystyrene foam sandwiched between sheets of oriented strand board. Coupled with stringent specifications, the resulting homes are strong enough to earn the insurance industry’s “fortified” label, the only builder in the state to do so.

“Modular” is a misnomer for the LSBH product, said several participants in Monday’s meeting.

The one house built under the project in Louisiana so far is an LSBH house standing at the Jackson Barracks site in New Orleans.

Also at the meeting were state Sens. Troy Hebert of Jeanerette and Nick Gauthreaux of Abbeville, state Rep. Jonathan Perry of Abbeville, and representatives of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and Congressmen Charlie Melancon and Charles Boustany.

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