FEMA Is Ignoring a Longer-Term Housing Option for Displaced Low Income Families – by Diane Yentel, NLIHC President and CEO

The following was published as an op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel on April 20, 2018: https://bit.ly/2vB78fl

For displaced people from the 2017 hurricanes, the storms were the first disaster - FEMA’s housing response has been the next. Thousands of low-income seniors, people with disabilities, and families with young children remain in hotels nearly seven months after hurricanes damaged or destroyed their homes primarily because of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s continued failure to implement proven, longer-term housing solutions.

The agency’s ongoing refusal to allow the Department of Housing and Urban Development to utilize its Disaster Housing Assistance Program is compounded by looming deadlines threatening to abruptly end hotel stays for displaced families throughout the country.

Displaced people are being told they must leave their hotel rooms without adequate housing to which they can return. In Florida, with the new eviction deadline of Friday, some families living in hotels were already moving out when FEMA decided to extend their stay until at least May 14. This latest arbitrary FEMA deadline to traumatize and displace low-income disaster survivors isn’t the first. Every few months, the deadlines scare enough families into leaving the hotels to double or triple up with other low-income people, sleep in cars, or return to their uninhabitable homes with just a few days’ notice.

Through this process, FEMA will more quickly reach its goal of closing down recovery programs; meanwhile, vulnerable families, seniors, and people with disabilities face ever more precarious living conditions. The same is true for the thousands of low-income people who were unable to access FEMA’s hotel assistance in the first place, due to financial and other barriers, including the practice of hotels charging daily “resort” fees and requiring security deposits or credit cards.

DHAP could provide temporary rental assistance and wrap-around case management to low-income families in need, helping them find permanent housing solutions, secure employment, and connect to public benefits as they rebuild their lives. The program was developed after hard-won lessons from Hurricane Katrina, and has been used successfully after Hurricanes Rita, Gustav and Ike and Superstorm Sandy. After previous storms, steps were taken to stand up DHAP as quickly as two weeks after a disaster. Both the Bush and Obama administrations recognized DHAP as a best practice after disasters.

The Trump administration, unfortunately, is instead either relying on failed responses from previous storms that led to the need to create DHAP in the first place or trying new ineffective pilot programs. Administrator Brock Long testified last week before Congress that he favored shifting responsibilities for disaster housing recovery from the federal government onto the states and Puerto Rico. But the state-run disaster housing programs put in place as an alternative to DHAP have been plagued by significant delays. Fewer than 320 households in Florida and 150 households in Texas are in the pipeline to receive state housing assistance. FEMA’s experiment has fallen woefully short.

FEMA’s continued inaction on longer-term housing solutions forces low-income survivors into predictable and preventable crises. Given the clear need and ample evidence of DHAP’s effectiveness after previous disasters, FEMA must work with HUD to implement this successful program right away. It’s long past time to give displaced people still struggling from last year’s storms the safety and stability of a home, and to prepare to do the same for people impacted by the next disaster.