Point of View: FEMA Is Failing Disaster Victims Who Are Still Desperate for Housing – Diane Yentel, NLIHC President and CEO

Diane Yentel, NLIHC President & CEODiane Yentel, NLIHC President & CEO

The following is adapted from an op-ed published in the Orlando Sentinel on June 29 at: https://bit.ly/2IEffc7

(Since publishing this op-ed, NLIHC’s Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition partners LatinoJustice PRLDEF and Faith in Action filed a lawsuit in federal court that succeeded in securing a national temporary injunction barring FEMA from ending its Temporary Shelter Assistance (TSA) program on June 30. As a result of the injunction, FEMA will continue the TSA program through July 5. The federal court will hear the case this afternoon, July 2. See related article in this week’s Memo to Members and Partners for more information on the lawsuit and other advocacy and congressional actions on disaster housing recovery).

After Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, tens of thousands of people were threatened to be displaced from their damaged or destroyed homes. Many thousands of them have spent the last ten months living in cramped motel rooms paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). When FEMA ends this housing assistance, nearly 2,000 families will be evicted from their hotel rooms, whether or not they have an alternate place to stay. The only support offered by FEMA is a one-way ticket back to Puerto Rico, where rebuilding efforts have barely begun.

While FEMA claims it is “doing all it can to provide stable housing to these U.S. citizens who have suffered loss and displacement,” this is simply false. As destitute people are evicted from their hotel rooms with nowhere else to go, we should all know: this is a conscious policy choice by the Trump administration.

Since the hurricanes made landfall, FEMA Administrator Brock Long has consistently refused to provide critical housing solutions, like the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP), to help the most vulnerable survivors get back on their feet. DHAP provides families with stable, affordable homes as they rebuild their lives and connects them to local housing professionals to find permanent housing solutions, secure employment, and connect to public benefits.

FEMA has unnecessarily forced thousands of struggling families to live out of motel rooms. In doing so, the agency has relied on a program that, by design, weeds out many of the lowest income people from receiving help altogether. Participating hotels turn displaced families away by charging fees on top of the amount FEMA will cover or requiring families to pay security deposits or have credit cards - all of which serve as barriers for low income families who have already depleted their limited savings and who are often unbanked.

Because of these barriers, thousands of displaced, low income families had little choice but to move into uninhabitable or overcrowded homes, stay at shelters, or sleep in their cars or on the streets. There are multiple accounts of people unable to access FEMA hotels who later needed emergency hospital care after returning to mold-infested homes. Disaster victims are now entering state homeless shelter systems because of FEMA’s unwillingness to provide appropriate disaster housing assistance.

Despite DHAP’s track record and strong bipartisan support, FEMA has rejected multiple requests for assistance made by impacted people, HUD, dozens of members of Congress, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló, and NLIHC’s Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition of over 700 local, state and national organizations working towards a complete disaster recovery for the lowest income people.

Instead, FEMA has spread misinformation about DHAP with the public and Congressional staff. FEMA argued that state-administered disaster housing programs are sufficient to meet the needs of displaced households. But state-run programs put in place as an alternative to DHAP are not accessible to survivors who have been displaced across state boundaries and the programs have been plagued by significant delays. In total, fewer than 320 households in Florida and 150 households in Texas are in the pipeline to receive state housing assistance, despite far greater numbers of households in need.

FEMA falsely claims that DHAP is too expensive. By our estimate, the federal government wasted $142 million by keeping more than 6,000 families in FEMA hotels for eight months instead of using DHAP. Those wasted funds could have instead been used to provide DHAP to more than 3,200 additional families in need of a stable home while they rebuild their lives. Moreover, solutions like DHAP are three times less expensive than the cost to local governments to respond to the predictable increase in homelessness.

Congress must hold FEMA accountable for its ineffective disaster housing response and protect families in need. This starts with enacting the "Disaster Housing Assistance Act" introduced by Senator Bill Nelson and the “Housing Victims of Major Disasters Act” introduced by Senator Elizabeth Warren to immediately activate DHAP and help ensure that those impacted by the next disaster are not victims of a conscious policy choice by the administration to leave them behind.