FEMA rewards flooded-out renters; punishes landlords

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DENVER -- A handful of flood victims in one Colorado zip code shared millions of dollars in federal aid while other victims in the same neighborhood actually lost money.

FOX31 Denver investigative reporter Chris Halsne has been tracking inconsistencies in how FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) handed out “individual assistance” grants in Colorado over the past year.

Statewide from September 13th, 2013, FEMA says it gave away a total of $61,634,458 to uninsured homeowners affected by rain and flood waters.

In the City of Evans zip code of 80620, public records show 381 people shared $6,638,523; by far the highest per person average of any other zip code in the state.

A federal source told FOX31 Denver nearly all the residents of two large manufactured-home parks along the South Platte River in Evans collected the maximum amount of individual assistance -- $31,900 each.

Because there were no strings attached, FOX31 Denver found many of those recipients left others to pay for and clean up their heavily damaged properties.

Landlords and non-resident property owners, like Eastwood Village owner, Keith Cowen, were not eligible for financial aid. Families lived in 153 manufactured homes in his park prior to the flood. Afterwards, the city labeled every residence “uninhabitable” and asked them to leave.

Cowen told Halsne, “All of the residents in the park got their money from FEMA. FEMA did pay them, but not me. We went and talked to ‘em (FEMA) and said ‘this is not fair!’ and they said ‘too bad’. It`s not your personal residence so therefore we cannot pay you for your business.”

Cowen says he could lose more than half a million dollars in unpaid rent, bank mortgages on manufactured homes he owned, and clean-up costs.

Evans Community Development Director, Sheryl Trent says the city is working with legislators and federal regulators to find solutions for the gap in financial aid for a number of landlords, including Cowen.

“At the end of the day all of the homes in Mr. Cowen’s park were destroyed and the owners of those homes simply walked away and left them there,” Trent told Halsne. “There are all sorts of reasons for that, but unfortunately that does leave Mr. Cowen and the city with a problem. He’s in a situation that he has to clean up the debris by law and again we’re back to the funding.”

Flood victims, Robert Tracy and Patricia Soria lived at Eastwood Village in manufactured home #87. They carried insurance, but most of their neighbors did not.

In a kind of unfair swap of fortune, they say FEMA handed those unprepared for disaster nearly $32,000 apiece, while they received a fraction of that.

Tracy says, “I sure wish they`d help us because we`re still waiting.” However, he reiterated to Halsne the couple is determined to recover with the help of family and friends.

Soria spoke with FOX 31 Denver while sitting on the porch of her parents’ Greeley home, a place she hopes they can move out of soon.

“When you`re in a store and think `Oh! I had something like that! Then think, ‘Oh yah. That got destroyed in the flood.’ It’s just ... you have to take it day by day and be strong.”

Evans landlord, Ernie Behring, owns seven destroyed rental properties near the river. He tells Halsne he filled out “thousands” of financial aid forms, but every agency told him he does not qualify for flood recovery grants.

“I haven`t had a paycheck in 11 months, by golly,” Behring says.

When FOX 31 Denver showed him the list of FEMA cash grants coming into his city, he shook his head and told Halsne, “I gotta say, you can see where some of the money went, but I wish I knew what all the numbers were and where it did all go. I`m not going to say any of it was done wrong, but I was really expecting some help my way and that hasn`t happened.”

Behring took FOX 31 Denver onto his condemned property to show us what he calls 'a real dilemma' now a year after this community’s 100 year flood:

FEMA won`t let landlords apply for aid and Behring can`t rebuild without spending money he doesn`t have to raze his houses.

“Rebuilding this house is not an option for anybody. If it has asbestos, they are ordering it removed. Then, on the other hand, they are ordering me not to go in. Definitely don`t do part 'A' and don`t do part 'B'.”

A FEMA public relations person told FOX31 Denver the Small Business Administration is a better place for landlords and business owners to get flood-related financial help.

Related: FEMA money unequally distributed in flooded neighborhoods