Hurricane Housing Recovery - By Diane Yentel, NLIHC President and CEO

Diane YentelNLIHC President & CEO Diane Yentel

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma’s devastating floods, wind and storm surge are affecting millions of residents in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. As with most disasters, those with the lowest incomes and the greatest vulnerabilities — who frequently reside in the area’s flood plains and who have the fewest resources to recover from such a disaster — are the hardest hit. Altogether, more than 8 million people had to evacuate from their homes and, while many will return quickly, many more may be displaced for weeks, months, or even years. Assisting and re-housing those with the lowest incomes must be a priority for federal, state, and local governments.

The White House and Congress worked quickly last week, putting aside politics to approve billions of dollars in rescue and recovery funds. But it is clear that those funds, including the $7.4 billion in CDBG-Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds, are but a small down payment for the large scale housing recovery and rebuilding that will be necessary.

CDBG-DR funding is a critical resource for repairing or rebuilding homes damaged by the storms, and the faster it is allocated, the sooner communities can begin the work of rebuilding lives. It’s ironic that the White House requested robust funding for this program, when just months earlier the administration proposed entirely eliminating the CDBG program in its FY18 spending request. The program’s elimination would not only mean starving local communities of the funding needed to build affordable homes and revitalize distressed neighborhoods, but would also eliminate the dedicated and experienced HUD staff that will now allocate and administer the critical CDBG-DR funds. Let’s hope that this one clear example of the administration’s shortsighted FY18 budget request stays top-of-mind when they begin putting together their budget request for FY19.

The flexibility inherent in the CDBG-DR program is a key to allowing local communities to create programs for impacted people to repair or rebuild homes in a manner that makes sense locally. But that same flexibility can create challenges for the lowest income renters harmed by disasters. Some communities – like New York City and New York State after Superstorm Sandy, and like Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina - do the right thing by prioritizing assistance for both homeowners and low income renters. Others - like Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina or Texas after Hurricane Ike - instead divert or endlessly delay funding that should be used for low income housing recovery.

This is why it will be so important for state and local housing advocates and legal aid attorneys to have increased capacity. They, along with national advocates and partners supporting their efforts, play critical roles in holding state and local government accountable in their plans to use CDBG-DR funds.

Subsidized and assisted housing within the hurricanes’ path and within the 100-year floodplain - whose residents are at risk of displacement and whose buildings are at risk of severe damage - and thousands of other low income households living in unsubsidized homes will need special attention and additional resources to recover. HUD’s Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP), which provides Disaster Vouchers (DVPs) to low income renters, is a crucial resource for low income renters. While President Trump has not yet nominated an assistant secretary for Public and Indian Housing, the division that would oversee DHAP, we can take some comfort in knowing there are strong career HUD employees who are preparing to rapidly stand up and competently administer a DHAP program. But first, FEMA must quickly enter into a mission assignment with HUD, allowing them to begin issuing DVPs to be reimbursed through FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund. In its next disaster supplemental spending bill, Congress must directly allocate sufficient funding for HUD’s DHAP, in addition to increased funding for CDBG-DR and a disaster allocation of Low Income Housing Tax Credits with strong incentives for deeply targeted units.

NLIHC is working closely with our state partners and other key partners on hurricane housing recovery and rebuilding. In Texas, we’re working with the Low Income Housing Information Service (Texas Housers), Texas Homeless Network, Texas Association of CDCs, the Texas Tenants Union, Texas Appleseed, Lone Star Legal Aid, the Houston Housing Authority, and others. In Florida, we’ll work with our state partner, the Florida Housing Coalition, as well as Miami Homes for All, the Community Justice Project, and others. Together, we’ll ensure that the rebuilding is fair and equitable and that the input and needs of the lowest income people are prioritized on the local, state, and federal levels. We are bringing these local leaders together with national housing and community development leaders to share information and best practices, identify gaps in resources and obstacles in implementing recovery plans, and coordinate and carry out effective advocacy at local, state and national levels. Already, over 250 organizations are participating in this effort. If you’d like to be involved, just send me an email, and I’ll be glad to add you to the email distribution list and weekly calls.

NLIHC has endorsed a set of principles created by Texas Housers and other community leaders to guide disaster relief efforts. The seven Principles for Equitable Disaster Recovery are:

  1. Securing help from government must be fair, easy and understandable, and survivors must have a say in the process.
  2. Everyone must get safe temporary housing where they can reconnect with family and community.
  3. Displaced people must have access to the resources they need to lead normal lives.
  4. Everyone must be assisted to fully recover housing, personal property, and transportation quickly.
  5. All homeowners must be able to rebuild in safe, quality neighborhoods of their choice.
  6. Renters must get quality, affordable rental property in safe, quality neighborhoods of their choice.
  7. All neighborhoods must be free from environmental hazards with quality public infrastructure to keep them safe and resilient.

We’ll soon send out a request for your organization to endorse these principles, along with an accompanying set of federal, state and local policy recommendations that we are developing with our partners and allies from impacted communities.

The recovery for the lowest income people, and repairing and rebuilding homes affordable to them, will take years. All of us at NLIHC are committed to working closely with our partners, members and allies in impacted states and throughout the country for as long as it takes to ensure the rebuilding is just, equitable and complete for all, including those with the lowest incomes. I hope you’ll join us in this important work.

With commitment and resolve,