Housing Situation 'Unprecedented'
On Tuesday of last week, Lafayette property managers were fielding hundreds of calls from Hurricane Katrina evacuees looking to rent homes on short-term leases. By Thursday, displaced families and businesses were starting to buy homes and lease offices. Meanwhile, the Cajundome, acting as an American Red Cross shelter, reached capacity, and local residents were asked to adopt families in order to accommodate more displaced hurricane victims.

"We're talking about numbers that nobody had planned for in their wildest dreams," says Bill Bacqué, chief executive officer of Van Eaton & Romero. "Our switchboard has just been inundated with people calling to the point where we can't handle it." Van Eaton & Romero doesn't handle rental properties but tries to match callers up with other local property managers.

Last week, Bacqué was working with other members of both the Lafayette and Louisiana Board of Realtors to set up a Web site, www.hurricanehomes.net, which they hoped to have up this week, to connect tenants with landlords.

A national site, www.hurricanehomes.org, has also been set up to match refugees with people willing to open up their homes free of charge. As of last week, the site listed more than 58,000 available beds.

Chuck Hebert, manager of Presteaux Management and Old South Realty, which handles more than 1,500 rental properties throughout Acadiana, says he has 40 available rentals on average, but that by midday Thursday, everything was occupied. Dozens are already on a waiting list.

"We're tying to accommodate as much as we can," Hebert says, "but it's just heartbreaking story after heartbreaking story. We just have no place to put them. It's just completely saturated." Many displaced families and businesses were moving beyond renting and beginning to buy properties around town ' a move that could spark a surge in property values.

"As the supply starts to diminish and the demand starts to go up, that's economics 101 that the price will go up," he says.

Bacqué wonders how the local market would handle such demand. As of Sept. 2, Bacqué says 787 homes were listed on the market in Lafayette Parish with a median price of $194,500. He also estimates another 330 homes could be for sale by owners, for a total of 1,100 homes for sale.

Hebert has already heard of instances where rental prices have gone up and wouldn't be surprised to see that carry into the buyers' market.

At least two businesses headquartered in New Orleans have announced they are moving to Lafayette offices for now. Law firm Liskow & Lewis is also relocating the bulk of its New Orleans staff to Lafayette. The firm signed a one-year lease last week to occupy a floor and a half in the FNB Towers on Jefferson Street. Superior Energy Services is also relocating employees to its Broussard office.

The big question is what will be done to accommodate the growing number of displaced indigents. Most of the residents who lost homes in the hurricane are living paycheck to paycheck.

"Many of these people don't have jobs to go back to," Bacqué says. "I don't think we've got any economic model that we can pull off the shelf and look at and say, 'This is what we're going to have to do to solve this problem.' It is unprecedented."

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