Just before recessing at the end of 2017, the House of Representatives passed an $81 billion disaster aid package, the third assistance package since the disasters hit in 2017. The House bill represents the largest single funding request for natural calamities in U.S. history and nearly doubles the White House’s request of $44 billion. Despite the admonitions of senators from disaster-affected states, no disaster aid supplemental was included in the Continuing Resolution Congress passed on December 21 to keep the government open through January 19.
NLIHC issued a press statement on December 21 on needed improvements to the House disaster relief bill before the Senate considers the legislation in January. “Congress has an important role to play to ensure that all disaster survivors – including people with the lowest incomes – get the help they need for a full recovery, starting with an affordable place to call home,” stated NLIHC president and CEO Diane Yentel.
The House bill faces obstacles to passage in the Senate. Both Democrats and Republicans have concerns. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called the House aid package "an unacceptable disaster supplemental, which still does not treat fairly California, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands." Republican conservatives object to the size of the disaster bill and call for offsets to pay for disaster relief with spending cuts to other domestic programs. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) said that attempting to put together a Senate vote on a disaster spending package in early January was “complicated” and stated, “We’ll take it up and pass it when we can.”
The House bill provides $26 billion for Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR); of this amount, $12.5 billion is targeted to mitigation efforts, with the rest slated for addressing unmet needs. Up to $10 million would go to capacity building and technical assistance. At least one-third of the CDBG-DR funds must be allocated within 60 days of enactment of the bill. Each grantee will be required to submit a detailed plan to HUD, outlining how it will uses the funds, “including criteria for eligibility and how the use of these funds will address long-term recovery, restoration of infrastructure and housing, economic revitalization, and mitigation in the most impacted and distressed areas.”
The bill directs the governor of Puerto Rico to meet additional requirements for CDBG-DR funds. Specifically, it requires that the governor submit to Congress Puerto Rico’s 12-month and 24-month disaster recovery plan related to housing, economic issues, and infrastructure, among many other areas. This plan must be developed with the island’s oversight board, which must also must approve any expenditure over $10 million. Any grantee that receives more than $3 billion in HUD, FEMA, and Corps of Engineer funds will be required to report to the Appropriations Committee on its efforts to “provide adequate resources and technical assistance for small, low-income communities affected by natural disasters.”
The aid package includes the Disaster Recovery Reform Act, passed in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on November 30 (see Memo, 12/11) which reforms FEMA’s response and recovery programs and requires increased pre-disaster planning and mitigation. The reforms include a provision that could divert CDBG-DR funding away from the lowest income people in favor of those with more financial stability. The bill would also allow a state to administer temporary and permanent housing construction programs with approval from the president.
The bill provides some tax relief to people impacted by recent wildfires, including allowing those who have lost property to wildfires to deduct damage costs on their taxes and removing the penalty for withdrawing money from a retirement account. The bill also provides a tax credit of up to $6,000 for employers located in areas impacted by the wildfires to help them keep staff and incentivizes donations to people and regions rebuilding after wildfires. Finally, the bill provides that each census tract in Puerto Rico that is low-income be deemed to be certified and designated as a qualified opportunity zone.
NLIHC sent a letter on behalf of the Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition (DRHC) to the leaders of the Appropriations Committees in the House and Senate on improvements needed in the bill to ensure assistance helps the most vulnerable disaster survivors. The DHRC is urging funding for HUD’s Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP) and increased investments in disaster recovery areas for the national Housing Trust Fund, Low Income Housing Tax Credits, HOME program, and New Markets Tax Credits. DHRC also urges requiring federal agencies to collect and publicly share data to ensure funds equitably address the housing and infrastructure needs of low income people and communities.
See NLIHC’s press statement on passage of the House disaster aid bill at: http://bit.ly/2D7Tf8y
See NLIHC’s letter to Congressional leaders at: http://bit.ly/2BSMLwd
See the Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition’s policy priorities for an equitable recovery at: http://bit.ly/2BtwTxt