NLIHC Testifies to Congress on Equitable Disaster Recovery

NLIHC President and CEO Diane Yentel testified before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management during a July 28 hearing on equitable disaster recovery. The “Experiences of Vulnerable Populations During Disaster” hearing focused on how historically marginalized populations – specifically low-income households, communities of color, and individuals living with disabilities – are impacted by disasters and what can be done to ensure the national disaster response and recovery system is equitable.

Other witnesses included Curtis Brown, state coordinator of emergency management at the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, testifying on behalf of the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management; Chad Higdon, CEO of Second Harvest Community Food Bank; and Marcie Roth, executive director and CEO of the World Institute on Disability.

In her opening statement, Diane called attention to FEMA’s continued failure to address the housing needs of the lowest-income and most marginalized disaster survivors: “NLIHC has worked on disaster housing recovery for 15 years since Hurricane Katrina, and from this experience, we have reached a simple conclusion: America’s disaster housing recovery system is fundamentally broken. It consistently exacerbates the housing crisis, solidifies segregation and racial inequities, and deepens inequality.”

In her opening remarks, Subcommittee Chair Dina Titus (D-NV) called attention to how FEMA continues to neglect the needs of vulnerable populations who are the most adversely impacted during times of hardship. Representative Titus concluded her opening statements by stating the need to reform our nation’s disaster response to be more inclusive, right, fair, and just.

Representative Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-FL) asked how the expiration of the eviction moratoriums could impact people’s access to FEMA assistance, particularly in areas threatened or impacted by a hurricane. Diane explained that it could be catastrophic if a hurricane hits at the same time as a surge of evictions and a rise in homelessness occurs as a result of the pandemic, describing the need for immediate Congressional action to prevent a wave of evictions. She also urged Congress to ensure that individuals experiencing homelessness who are residing in FEMA-funded hotels can move into permanent housing rather than being forced back into homelessness.

Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) asked what happens to people experiencing homelessness during a disaster, citing a regulation that allows FEMA to withhold assistance to people who were experiencing homelessness before a declared disaster. Diane explained that in past disasters, FEMA has interpreted current law to deny assistance to people experiencing homelessness prior to a disaster. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, FEMA has interpreted the law much more broadly, determining that people who were homeless prior to the disaster are eligible for non-congregate shelter. This demonstrates that FEMA could interpret the law more broadly to serve people experiencing homelessness, but it chooses not to.

When Representative Gary Palmer (R-AL) asked about the role of faith-based groups in disaster recovery, Diane responded that faith-based groups can play an important role, but that these organizations should not limit or put conditions on assistance. “I certainly have no animus toward faith-based organizations and their value in disaster assistance and recovery…but assistance has to be available to everybody who needs it without requirements put on that assistance. There have been cases, especially when it comes to people experiencing homelessness, where faith-based organizations may want to put additional requirements on the assistance. In our view, that’s not acceptable.”

Representative Salud Carbajal (D-CA) described the many barriers faced by Latinos, other communities of color, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups when trying to access FEMA assistance. In response to Representative Carbajal’s question about what actions the Committee can take to address equity issues and reform FEMA’s practices, Diane explained that Congress must require FEMA to provide full transparency on program eligibility, the aid application process, and reasons for denials of assistance. She urged the Committee to address FEMA’s rigid title documentation requirements, which have resulted in tens of thousands of eligible disaster survivors being wrongfully denied FEMA assistance in Puerto Rico alone. Diane also recommended that the Committee and Congress require FEMA to implement the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP). Past Republican and Democratic administrations have upheld DHAP as a best practice for meeting the longer-term housing needs of low-income renters. Under the Trump administration, however, FEMA has refused to activate this program, to the detriment of low-income survivors.

When Representative Mike Garcia (R-CA) asked panelists if they are documenting lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, Diane explained that while NLIHC continues to document the evidence of what is working and what is not, FEMA rarely implements these lessons learned and best practices. Because of this, Congress must take action to immediately address some of the most significant challenges facing survivors.

On July 28, NLIHC released “Fixing America’s Broken Disaster Housing Recovery System Part Two: Policy Framework Reform Recommendations.” Part 1 of the two-part report series identified how America’s disaster housing recovery framework exacerbates and reinforces racial, income, and accessibility inequities at each stage of response and recovery. Part 2 of the report identifies specific local, state, and national policy recommendations to redesign our national disaster housing response and recovery system to center the needs of the lowest-income survivors and their communities. Both reports were written by NLIHC and the Fair Share Housing Center of New Jersey with critical input from DHRC members, including many with first-hand experience recovering after disasters.

Watch a recording of the Transportation and Infrastructure hearing at:

Read Diane Yentel’s testimony at:

Read Part 1 of “Fixing America’s Broken Disaster Housing Recovery System” at:

Read Part 2 of “Fixing America’s Broken Disaster Housing Recovery System” at: