I was honored to give the keynote at the 43rd Annual Natural Hazards Research and Applications Workshop on July 9 in Broomfield and Boulder, Colorado. The event is hosted by The Natural Hazards Center—which is the nation’s National Science Foundation-designated clearinghouse for research and information on hazards and disasters. The Hazards Center staff members convened 500 researchers, practitioners, and policy makers from across the nation and around the world to work on hazards mitigation and disaster risk reduction. My remarks, entitled “Let Us Not Merely Rebuild What Was, But What Should Be,” are presented below. The reader can access our “Hurricane Survivor Recovery Rights, Principles and 60 Recommended Initiatives.” The six disaster additional recovery practices that need reform that I spoke about are posted at the bottom of this blog. Additional information on the RAPDIO initiative I discussed can be found on rapidorecovery.org. A page following the build of the latest improved RAPIDO home, which started construction today in Houston, will be posted here soon.
Listen to the audio of the speech or read it below.
How Do We Achieve a Transformative Recovery?
Let Us Not Merely Rebuild What Was, But What Should Be
In keeping with the theme of this conference, 20 questions, I have a question for everyone in this room:
If Disaster Recovery offers, in the course of rebuilding, unique opportunities to improve the lives of lower-income people, overcome racial segregation, build wealth and overcome multi-generational poverty, do we seize that opportunity or is that beyond the scope of DR?
Since 2005 my colleagues and I have been working on recovery from four major natural disasters in Texas. We have learned three things about the transformative potential of disaster recovery:
One: Disaster recovery is the most powerful tool we have to address socio-economic inequalities of people and neighborhoods – inequalities that our country has largely otherwise given up trying to overcome;
Two: A legal framework is already in place that requires DR activities be carried out to overcome these inequalities; and yet
Three: Disaster Recovery often fails to afford low- and moderate-income and people of color an equitable recovery..
At Texas Housers, we are committed to improving the relationship of low-income people with their government. We support citizen action to reform governmental policies and practices to build better neighborhoods, homes and lives. From our offices in five regions of Texas, we work in partnership with low-income leaders and their representative community organizations. Texas Housers is supported exclusively by foundations and donors. By taking no money from government, we maintain our freedom to speak out along with low-income people about public policy and practices.
I have some caveats about my remarks today:
- I’m not a program administrator. I’m a policy advocate.
- I respect the difficult and important job that program administrators have. I know they all work hard to do the difficult task of managing a recovery. I hope my comments today will be viewed in the spirit of trying to make the recovery better.
- My direct experience with disaster recovery is limited to Texas. I know a lot of folks think Texas is a conservative outlier. But I talk regularly with advocates dealing with disaster recovery from other states. A lot of the issues in Texas that I will talk about today are present, albeit sometimes to a different degree in many other states.
I have five recommendations for the reform of disaster recovery.
RECOMMENDATION 1. DESIGN THE RECOVERY TO REBUILD EQUITABLY.
A few weeks ago, Lori Peek sent me some current research into disaster recovery. Reading through the literature, I was drawn to this statement, “FEMA says that the phase known as recovery, ‘continues until all systems return to normal or better.“
Which is it I wondered? Is our goal in disaster recovery just to get things back to the pre-disaster normal?
When I think about conditions across Texas’ almost 100 counties impacted by the last four large scale natural disasters, it is clear that ”normal” is generally not good for lower-income households.
- In every county there is widespread income inequality.
- Large percentages of disaster survivors are very poor.
- An overwhelming majority of impoverished survivors live in distressed neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.
- These neighborhoods are disproportionally in flood and environmentally hazardous areas.
- These racially segregated, impoverished areas, were created and are maintained through public policies that are rooted in racism and economic exploitation.
- Many homeowners live in substandard homes inside distressed neighborhoods in what is called “heir property.” Through depressed property values and a dysfunctional real estate market, they are locked into a home where poverty means deferred maintenance, increased vulnerability and little prospect for the home to contribute to an accumulation of household wealth.
- More than half of impoverished home renters are what HUD terms “severely rent burdened,” meaning they pay more than half of their gross incomes for rent. Large apartment blocks dominate entire Census tracts with racially and economically segregated apartments. Residents there suffer from substandard conditions, high levels of crime, failing schools, flooding and other environmental hazards.
- Home renters who are lucky enough to secure a place in a government subsidized housing development are able to avoid severe rent burdens. But virtually all of this subsidized housing is located in neighborhoods of racial segregation, high concentrations of poverty, environmental and climate hazards and endure unacceptable levels of crime, underperforming schools, food deserts, and a lack of jobs.
If the outcome of recovery is to spend billions of federal dollars to return families to this pre-disaster “normal” then we are passing up a precious opportunity to do right by disaster survivors.
If we want to leverage the power of disaster recovery to rebuild as things should be – that is – use DR as a tool to reduce economic and social inequalities of people and neighborhoods, we need to approach DR differently than we have in the past.
Here are two facts:
- our race and income often determines the neighborhoods in which we live; and
- where we live greatly influences the life chances we and our children have.
These facts are supported by a rapidly growing body of research. Consider the work of Raj Chetty and Patrick Sharkey on long-term outcomes of children in high-poverty neighborhoods. Read the studies out of Johns Hopkins on the economic devastation of black homeowners who bought homes in minority segregated neighborhoods. Consider Harvard’s Matthew Desmond’s accounts of the impact of housing instability on people of color; Dr. Robert Bullard’s work from Texas Southern University on environmental racism’s impacts on African-Americans and numerous studies of public health disparities in high poverty, segregated neighborhoods.
Residential segregation is not normal. Racist governmental and private practices deliberately created segregation and we have not entirely ended nor overcome these practices. This foundational insight is presented by Richard Rothstein in his 2017 seminal book, “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.”
Racial segregation still serves the political interests of some. Legendary civil rights attorney Mike Daniel puts it this way…
“Segregation continues to be functional for local governments. It allows government to save money by providing unequal services to a less politically powerful population. Segregation avoids inflicting unpopular burdens such as living near facilities such as sewage treatment plants and landfills on more politically powerful populations. The results of the barriers will be to subject minority families to either a lower level of benefits or a higher degree of disadvantages or to both. Segregation,” Daniel notes, “is not done to give minorities more of the good stuff.”
Congress committed our nation to dismantle residential segregation fifty years ago by enacting the Fair Housing Act that proclaims federal policy to be the promotion of “truly integrated living patterns.”
When disaster recovery rebuilds with the intent to restore the normal or pre-disaster condition, it is also restoring and maintaining the inequalities created by Jim Crow.
RECOMMENDATION 2. OBEY THE LAW.
Flip to the end of any CDBG-DR State action plan submitted to HUD and you will find the list of certifications the state makes to the federal government as a condition of receiving the grant.
The state certification concerning residential segregation reads:
The grantee certifies that the grant will be conducted and administered in conformity with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act and implementing regulations, and that it will affirmatively further fair housing.
This means that homeowners living in racially segregated neighborhoods of high poverty must be provided mobility counseling and opportunities to move. It means that home renters, living in government subsidized apartments and private apartments receiving DR assistance, must be offered options not only to live in traditionally segregated areas but also in higher opportunity neighborhoods. By definition, rebuilding all the affordable housing back in the same, distressed, vulnerable neighborhoods, or telling survivors they must rebuild in place, fails to comply with the state’s certification that it will Affirmatively Further Fair Housing.
I’d like to point out a few more certifications that are also often ignored which, if honored, would produce a better, more equitable recovery process.
- The grantee certifies that it has in effect and is following a residential anti-displacement and relocation assistance plan in connection with any activity assisted with funding under the CDBG program.
I have seen this functionally ignored in almost every recovery in my state.
A residential anti-displacement plan is obviously important for survivors who want to exercise their right to stay. The relocation assistance plan is also critical for ensuring that homeowners participating in relocation programs are offered purchase prices, and relocation benefits sufficient to obtain affordable homes in safe and quality neighborhoods of their choice.
For renters, a relocation plan is critical. DR rental housing assistance is often provided to landlords without requiring that the rents are actually affordable to the displaced survivors. In the Hurricane Harvey Action Plan, the State of Texas allows landlords to collect rents affordable to households earning 80 percent of area median family income. This means half of low-income disaster survivors who are renters will not be able to afford the rent in the apartments subsidized with CDBG-DR funds. The state also proposed to require the apartments remain rent restricted for only ten years, HUD directed Texas to extend this to 20 years — still not long enough.
- The grantee certifies that it will comply with Section 3 of the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968.
Section 3 is the federal government’s effort to require that low- and moderate-income persons have a chance to get jobs and contracts funded by the government. Recovery jobs should be marketed to low-income people, and contractors rewarded for their success in placing low- and moderate-income people in these jobs. To assess compliance, ask to review the Section 3 reports the DR administering agency sends to HUD. The failure to produce any significant number of jobs for low-income people in most jurisdictions evidences that this certification is not taken seriously.
- The grantee certifies that it is following a detailed citizen participation plan that satisfies the requirements of 24 CFR 91.105. Also, each subrecipient receiving assistance from a state grantee must follow a detailed citizen participation plan that satisfies the requirements.
That Texas refused to make public the data it relied on to determine the geographic and programmatic allocation of Hurricane Harvey funds, shortened the public comment period on the Action Plan to a mere fourteen days and refused to hold even one public hearing before adopting the Action Plan gives a sense of its failure to take this certification seriously.
In the previous Hurricane Dolly recovery, there was robust citizen involvement through hearings, working committees and direct outreach. The process energized a small army of volunteers who assisted with outreach to other survivors. This grassroots action kept at least 250 of the lowest income households from being excluded from the DR home reconstruction program and resulted in the Hurricane Dolly recovery being praised as the state’s most rapid and effective recovery.
- Funds will be used solely for necessary expenses related to disaster relief, long-term recovery, restoration of infrastructure and housing and economic revitalization in the most impacted and distressed areas for which the President declared a major disaster.
State and local governments seem to be infinitely creative in classifying all sorts of pork barrel activities as, “necessary expenses related to DR.” I’ll mention one example. A city hundreds of miles from where Hurricane Ike made landfall, with no physical damage, applied for DR funds to build a new loop around town, justifying the activity as expediting the evacuation of survivors from the far away coastal areas. I’ve seen hundreds of other unrelated projects proposed, and many funded, with CDBG-DR over the past four major Texas disasters.
- With respect to activities expected to be assisted with CDBG-DR funds, the Action Plan has been developed so as to give the maximum feasible priority to activities that will benefit low- and moderate-income families. And, the aggregate use of CDBG-DR funds shall principally benefit low- and moderate-income families in a manner that ensures that at least 70 percent is expended for activities that benefit such persons.
I have to give credit to HUD for sticking, so far, with the requirement that 70 percent of Hurricane Harvey CDBG-DR funds principally benefit low- and moderate-income families.
From the beginning of this recovery, government officials across Texas have worked to direct benefits to higher income households in violation of this certification. In April 2018, in the Galveston Daily News, Commissioner George P. Bush, the director of the agency that oversees DR in Texas, asserted “storms do not only affect low-to-moderate income residents” and detailed his efforts to obtain a waiver from the 70% requirement. Even after Commissioner Bush enlisted the help of the Texas congressional delegation, HUD denied his request. Commissioner Bush began advocating eliminating targeting the LMI population that is overwhelmingly people of color even before the flood water receded and before any information was available as to the income of those with housing needs.
- The grantee certifies that it (and any subrecipient or administering entity) currently has or will develop and maintain the capacity to carry out disaster recovery activities in a timely manner.
One need only consider that eight years after Hurricane Ike, the State of Texas and its subcontractors have yet to expend hundreds of millions of dollars in CDBG-DR funds set aside for what is arguably the greatest disaster recovery need, the replacement of public housing demolished as a result of Hurricane Ike in 2008.
There have also been multiple false and slow starts in DR activities that have caused program responsibility to be constantly shifted between various slow performing or non-performing units of local government. The state has rejected our calls to set timeline performance benchmarks for agencies administering DR funds that would transfer responsibility from slow and non-performers.
While it is wrong for state and local government officials to certify they will comply with these certifications and not do so, it is also wrong that HUD frequently ignores their noncompliance.
HUD does not fully enforce these certifications because HUD views states and localities, not disaster survivors as their essential constituency. Enforcement depends on citizens complaining about violations, taking HUD and local administrators to court when necessary and shining a spotlight on these failures so the public pays attention to what is going on.
RECOMMENDATION 3. ADOPT A DISASTER SURVIVORS BILL OF RIGHTS.
The rights of survivors in the recovery should be explicitly enumerated from the start.
While the specific programs for recovery vary from place to place, survivors everywhere need the opportunity to exercise choice on where they will live, how their neighborhoods will be restored and how their needs and desires will be heard. Disasters harm people not only through the loss of their home and neighborhood, but also through survivors’ loss of control over their lives.
The endless application forms, lengthy eligibility verification, efforts to keep expenditures low and threats of the legal consequences if government agencies determine people have made false statements all have an effect. Many survivors we have worked with, including extremely low-income households, simply walked away from the process in frustration.
There is a problem both in the way individuals are treated and the way survivors’ collective desires are ignored. Politicians and program administrators routinely treat citizen participation as a useless burden; a pro-forma process to get out of the way before going on to pass out assistance in the manner it has pre-determined. In Texas, as I said earlier, there was not one single public hearing for the $5 billion Hurricane Harvey action plan. The plan was put together behind closed doors by bureaucrats, released for hurried public comment and adopted virtually as originally drafted.
A disaster survivor’s bill of rights is needed to give survivors a say both in the design of the recovery program in general as well as the right to choose the recovery approach that is best for them individually.
Texas Housers has worked closely with a Houston citywide organization of African-American and Hispanic community groups, the Texas Organizing Project (TOP). TOP’s members have long-standing, well-founded concerns about the inequities in public services and facilities and the misuse of federal funds in their impoverished neighborhoods. We have found many of their concerns valid violations of civil rights and fair housing laws.
Leveraging a fair housing complaint that we filed with HUD in 2010, TOP negotiated an agreement with then Houston Mayor Annise Parker for the equitable use of tens of millions of dollars in federal disaster recovery funds to begin addressing some of their concerns. The negotiations between TOP and the mayor are a good example of how citizen participation can improve the result for low-income disaster survivors. Out of these negotiations the neighborhood leaders came up with something that had eluded me for decades: a clear and concise statement of how low-income communities in general and disaster survivors in particular expect to be treated.
It boils down to four rights:
- The right to choose;
- The right to stay;
- The right to equal treatment; and
- The right to have a say.
The Right to Choose. This is the opportunity to have a right to choose where to live. Homeowners and renters must have the right to relocate to where they feel it is best for their families, where it is safe and where there are good opportunities for their children and themselves. Practically speaking, survivors must be counseled on all available housing options. Moving must be as viable an option following a disaster as rebuilding in place. Survivors with disabilities must have accessible housing opportunities and not be directed or forced into institutions. The recovery process must also provide choices other than shelters for housing survivors who are homeless at the time of the disaster.
The Right to Stay. This means disaster survivors have the right to stay or return home to pre-disaster neighborhoods if they choose. But these neighborhoods must be provided adequate storm protection and other essential public infrastructure that affords a decent quality of life and gives protection from future disasters. Many neighborhoods have severe public infrastructure deficits. In Houston, we found that virtually all of the city’s extensive un-engineered and inadequate open ditch drainage is in low-income neighborhoods of color.
The right to stay also means tenants of subsidized housing must have a right to stay in subsidized housing that is safe and accessible. All tenants of damaged subsidized housing should be presented the option of a Housing Choice Voucher and given assistance in finding an apartment in a neighborhood that, in their judgment, meets the needs of their families.
We are currently working with an organization of low-income single moms living in a HUD-subsidized development in a chronically distressed neighborhood of Houston. The first-floor apartments have flooded multiple times because the apartment project is built inside a floodway. Not just a floodplain mind you, but in a flood way. The apartment owner wants to rebuild. But the moms want a better recovery that offers them a rent voucher to get themselves and their kids out of this chronic flooding project. For right now the rent subsidy is tied to the building and HUD recently signed a multi-year rent renewal with the owner, trapping these families for another decade.
The Right to Equal Treatment. This means survivors must be treated equally and fairly by government in the recovery process. Many lower-income neighborhoods, especially neighborhoods of people of color, lack essential public infrastructure including protection from flooding. Through the recovery, every LMI neighborhood regardless of the race, ethnicity, or disability of its residents must be provided quality, equal levels of flood protection and equal access to essential public infrastructure.
Equal treatment also means the recovery must treat LMI renters fairly. While recovery benefits are tied directly to homeowners, the rebuilding process does not follow and support renters to recover. Too often recovery for home renters amounts to government providing money to landlords to build or repair apartments to rent to the general population, often at rents unaffordable to the actual renter survivors.
The Right to Have a Say. This is at the core of our democracy. Survivors must play an integral role in designing and implementing disaster recovery plans and programs. Survivors should be permitted to help design the recovery, understand what is in store for them in the process, know where they are at all points in the process and be empowered to speak out and be listened to, in the language that they can understand. TOP and the City of Houston secured disaster survivors a say by sponsoring workshops with the architects designing Houston’s DR houses. As a result, instead of just one or two choices, homeowners had numerous choices about reconstructing their homes. This created palpably greater control for each homeowner’s recovery process.
The right to choose;
The right to stay;
The right to equal treatment; and
The right to have a say.
These should be the basis for a universal bill of rights for disaster survivors.
RECOMMENDATION 4. COMMIT TO ACHIEVING SEVEN OUTCOMES FROM THE RECOVERY.
The four rights afford survivors’ the power to make decisions in the DR process as it impacts their families. But what are the basic outcomes all survivors should expect from the recovery?
Again working with grassroots leaders we identified seven outcomes of recovery.
- Securing help from government is accessible, understandable and timely.
- Everyone in need receives safe, temporary, accessible housing where they can reconnect with family and community.
- Displaced people have access to all the resources they need to recover personal property and transportation; disaster rebuilding jobs and contracts are locally sourced and provide fair wages.
- Everyone is fairly assisted to recover fully and promptly through transparent and accountable programs in compliance with civil rights laws, with survivors having a say in both the recovery path best for them and the way assistance is provided overall.
- All homeowners are able to quickly repair or rebuild in safe, quality neighborhoods of their choice that fit the needs of their families.
- Renters quickly get good, affordable, accessible rental housing in safe, quality neighborhoods of their choice that meets the needs of their families.
- All impacted neighborhoods are made free from environmental hazards, have equal quality public infrastructure and are safe and resilient.
Let’s summarize the seven outcomes again because it’s a lot to take in:
- everyone understands the DR process;
- everyone gets temporary housing that helps them get back on their feet;
- people get their personal property and transportation restored quickly along with a chance to land a job in the rebuilding projects;
- people get to choose how to recover with their civil rights protected;
- homeowners repair or rebuild in a location of their choice;
- home renters get to rent a decent affordable place in a good location; and
- neighborhoods are rebuilt with adequate public infrastructure and are free from environmental hazards.
I propose that these outcomes, along with the four rights, are set out on page one of every action plan of every agency administering disaster recovery.
Honestly, I have never seen a recovery that even comes close to granting the four rights and achieving the seven outcomes. But this is not a moonshot, it is achievable. On our website (texashousers.org) you can find the four rights, the seven principles and some sixty recommended actions to achieve the seven outcomes.
At Texas Housers we have identified other current practices of disaster recovery that we believe need to be reformed. While there is not time now to lay out the details I want to mention some of them and invite you to read more about them on our website.
- Damage and unmet needs data is not disclosed by FEMA and misinterpreted by HUD and states.
- DR funds are often directed away from LMI survivors to fund non-urgent activities.
- FEMA denies assistance to poor survivors because of the pre-disaster condition of their homes.
- Exclusionary barriers to low-income families’ rebuilding are erected by local governments.
- FEMA replaced the successful DHAP voucher program with a problem riddled muck and gut and partial repair program.
- Program outreach efforts to survivors often falls short.
Again, if you want to read more about these issues, check out our website.
I’m certain I don’t need to point out to this gathering of disaster recovery experts that we need to be skeptical of silver bullet solutions for rebuilding. Proposals for tiny houses or using shipping containers for rapid rehousing abound. Some are interesting, but they do not fix the problems within the governmental system of recovery policy and finance.
More than just a better design solution, we need a program solution that addresses lowering cost, increasing rebuilding speed, increasing home resilience, lowering long term maintenance and insurance costs, leveraging the home investment to improve the neighborhood and better linking temporary housing with permanent housing programs and finance, all of which need to work within the realpolitik of DR.
For the better part of a decade Texas Housers and our community partners, the private sector, government and academia have been experimenting with better disaster recovery practices using a program test platform we call RAPIDO.
It began with the goal of addressing two recurring problems:
- there was never enough DR funds available to rebuild all the housing needed by low income survivors; and
- the state and local governments were taking between four to eight years to reconstruct homes.
We watched in frustration as FEMA spent large sums on trailers and temporary housing and mucking and gutting homes that were ultimately not salvageable. We wondered if we could capture those funds to make more money available for high quality, permanent home reconstruction.
We held an architectural competition, which hit on a two-phase process. Phase 1 is a small core unit that substitutes for the FEMA trailer. Phase 2 is the final home built around that core as the survivor family lives in the core. RAPIDO proves we can get people into cores quickly and capture a good portion of what FEMA spends for trailers and other temporary housing to pay for more fully reconstructed homes. This might increase by one-third the number of home reconstructions possible using the same combined FEMA and CDBG-DR appropriations.
A large-scale test of RAPIDO is now blocked because of confusion over whether “recycling” the core into the permanent house violates the Stafford Act. It seems FEMA can pay to buy a trailer, set it up, later remove it and sell it for pennies on the dollar, but they can’t spend the same FEMA funds as part of both a temporary and permanent housing solution like RAPIDO.
Undeterred, we raised private funds to keep moving the idea forward. Today, in Houston we are beginning to assemble the 25th RAPIDO home. Each home further refines the approach. The latest homeowner, Scenacia, will move into the core in a few weeks. She is a low-income mom who works as a health aide and cares for her 11-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son who has severe disabilities. The family lost all their possessions to Hurricane Harvey.
Local community organizers, a CDC, a public interest architecture firm, the Enterprise Foundation, Professor Shannon Van Zandt from Texas A&M University and our staff are really into this demonstration.
With Scenacia and her children’s help, this version of RAPIDO will demonstrate whether a core and permanent home can fit the bill for the family’s special needs. The phased approach accommodates the family and the phased process is cheaper and quicker than DR houses, yet more resilient and efficient to maintain. By the way, FEMA told Scenacia her family didn’t qualify for assistance. While the first DR-funded homes are probably a year away, Scenacia and her kids will be home in a couple weeks, at least in the core. It will take a couple of months to build the complete home around Scenacia’s family, while they are living in the core.
Scenacia visits the site every day after work, checking on the progress. When the concrete for the foundation piers was poured last week, Scenacia texted us a photo saying, “I’ve NEVER seen a more beautiful piece of concrete in my life.” However small the reach is of this demonstration, this is what transformative recovery can look like.
You can see the past models of RAPDIO homes, the implementation manuals and independent assessments at rapidorecovery.org.
We’ll be reporting on the build of Scenacia’s new home and she’ll be blogging about her recovery experience on our website at texashousers.org.
CALL TO ACTION
Despite its problems, DR has the greatest potential of the programs available to us today to dismantle the inequalities government has inflicted on poor communities and families. It can transform people’s lives.
The generosity of the American people toward disaster survivors is proof we can be a good and compassionate people. Continued public support for disaster recovery will require that funds are well spent. The American people and survivors alike will truly embrace a disaster recovery that they see as transforming lives and communities. We can spur this transformation with creative solutions to both pre and post disaster conditions and through better oversight and accountability for the recovery process by disaster survivors and people like you and me.
END OF SPEECH
SIX DISASTER RECOVERY PRACTICES THAT NEED REFORM
Texas Housers has identified other current practices of DR that need reform. Here is a brief summary of six.
1. Damage and unmet needs data in not disclosed by FEMA and misinterpreted by HUD and states.
As the agency performing initial damage assessments and providing short-term housing assistance, FEMA should be the best source for data on where damage occurred, the severity and nature of that damage, and where various types FEMA assistance were and were not provided. This data, however, is largely withheld from the public so concerned citizens and organizations are unable to hold FEMA accountable for its recovery activities. Only data summarized at a zip code level is made readily available by FEMA to the general public, which is insufficient for gaining a true understanding about the neighborhood and individual experience in disaster recovery. Even local governments who are often assigned responsibility for assessing local needs and devising local rebuilding initiatives have complained repeatedly about not being given access to data that would allow them to identify where the unmet needs are in their communities.
What’s even more problematic is how HUD and state agencies administering disaster recovery, analyze and use this FEMA data to decide on geographic allocation of funds and select long-term recovery activities. We have found that FEMA, on average, undervalues the damage, losses and particularly the unmet housing needs of lower-income owner and renter households to be less than those for higher-income households. The failure of an administering agency to recognize this has the effect of underestimating the unmet housing needs of low-income households, meaning the true costs of a full recovery are underfunded and thousands of families with limited means and especially home renters don’t get the assistance they need. In our experience, both HUD and the state are guilty of producing inaccurate needs assessments with FEMA data.
2. DR funds are often directed away from LMI survivors to fund non-urgent activities.
The prospect of receiving millions of dollars in grant money is both a challenge and unique opportunity for local governments, many of which are cash-strapped and in need of expensive infrastructure improvements to deal with disaster-related issues like drainage and damaged public facilities. Unfortunately, we’ve seen many local governments, as well as our state government, use the funding opportunities made possible by a large-scale disaster to fund projects which have little to do with directly addressing disaster-related infrastructure and public facilities.
For example, following Hurricane Harvey, the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas submitted to Congress a $61 billion request of projects with the overarching objective of “future-proofing” the state against future disasters. Over 2,200 projects were submitted by local governments and entities, along with some from the state including $12 billion for the “Ike Dike” and several expensive port improvement projects like $231 million for improvements to a port located in Brownsville, Texas–some 200 miles south of Harvey’s landfall site in Rockport and untouched by the disaster.
Of these 2200 submitted projects, 281 were included in the Commission’s request. These projects were purportedly evaluated by a panel of experts against a long list of criteria to promote cost effectiveness, equity, feasibility, and other qualities. However, when we asked for details we were told that the Commission had no responsive information regarding who was on this panel of experts, we were supplied with a one-page survey through which local governments submitted project proposals that presented no information permitting any meaningful evaluation, and we were supplied with a list of the 2200 projects. We found several larger communities, such as Port Arthur, a low- and moderate-income, majority minority city, which is second only to Houston in the number of homes damaged by Harvey, completely left out of the request.
3. FEMA denies assistance to poor survivors because of the pre-disaster condition of their home.
In 2017, La Union de Pueblo Entero, an organization representing farmworkers and low-income residents of South Texas colonias and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid finally won an eight-year court battle with FEMA over a unwritten policy through which FEMA was denying assistance to families with hurricane damage because of the pre-existing condition of their home.
Colonia residents, whose homes were often rendered completely unlivable by damages during Hurricanes Dolly and Rita, and who had little to no means to recover on their own, were being routinely told that essentially because of their poverty, they didn’t qualify for assistance.
On paper, these families were denied for “insufficient damage”, homeowners were told that it was the pre-existing condition of their homes that caused the damage. FEMA contractors had noted that these homes already had “deferred maintenance”, which essentially punished them for being poor and unable to keep their homes in perfect repair. It was basically telling these families that the disaster damage had been their fault.
Though FEMA claims it no longer uses this secret rule, some suspect that this “pre-existing condition” qualification is still showing up in other types of denials, such as “Insufficient damage”, which is by far the most common reason for denial of owner and renter households. (Owners – 54% and Renters – 28% during Hurricane Harvey).
This is illustrated by case after case, in which Harvey survivors were denied FEMA repair money when their homes had clearly been rendered unsafe or uninhabitable. For example, during a Texas Legislative committee meeting, low-income homeowners testified about being denied by FEMA based on the “pre-existing condition” of their home. One Houston Harvey survivor, Mr. Moses, a carpenter, was denied FEMA assistance even after Harvey “poured down so much water that the house started to sink.” He lost his car and his tools in the storm, making him unable to work, and he was forced to move into a motel due to the damage. He explained that the FEMA inspector had told him that there had been an existing problem with his home before the storm, and therefore he wouldn’t be eligible for any assistance.
Denying poor families assistance because they live in less-than-perfect homes exacerbates inequality and perpetuate the hazardous conditions many are forced to live under.
4. Exclusionary barriers are erected by local governments to low-income families’ rebuilding
State officials had never engaged in long-term recovery planning. In fact, the prevailing political philosophy eschews governmental planning in general because of the constraints it is perceived to place upon the free exercise of individual property rights. When planning is required to receive federal funding, the prevailing state philosophy at the time was to assign local needs assessment, planning and program administration to the most local unit of government, namely cities and counties.
While this level of local control has an appeal, it produced a number of problems:
• Most units of local government never administered federal housing and community development funds and were unfamiliar with, and sometime philosophically hostile to civil rights and fair housing laws.
• Some cities were more concerned with eliminating low income housing and low-income neighborhoods than they were with providing homes and quality integrated neighborhoods.
• There was particular hostility to reconstructing government subsidized housing, especially if fair housing laws prohibited it from being rebuilt only in isolated, impoverished and segregated neighborhoods.
• Disaster recovery guidelines were used by some cities as a way of reducing the low-income population from the area. Maximum home repair assistance limits were set in one community to $25,000 while nearby towns made $150,000 available.
• Minimum square footage requirements for reconstructed homes were set such that homes assisted with DR funds could not be built. Requirements for 100 percent masonry for new homes were adopted by some all-white cities.
• One county in South Texas required proof of citizenship for all residents on the home. In a part of the state where grandparents or other relatives were living in homes owned or rented by documented US residents, this excluded many disaster survivors from receiving any HUD rebuilding assistance.
• In essence, the control of the DR program gave local officials and politicians the opportunity to reshape the ethnicity, demographics and income of their citizens and some chose to do so.
In the field of DR, better isn’t a moonshot, something we pine for. It should be the standard. It should be how we do things.
5. FEMA ended the successful DHAP voucher program for a problem-riddled muck and gut and partial repair program.
Two years after the 2005 Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit, tens of thousands of people still couldn’t get home. Too much of the housing stock had been destroyed and too many people had been displaced. Even though FEMA had provided individual assistance and temporary housing, it wasn’t enough for the needs of the most vulnerable. HUD and FEMA developed a solution called the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP) – it housed people in apartments with subsidies that declined over time and provided case management, with the goal of transitioning people to permanent housing. The program has been evaluated and overall, participants reported that it helped them get back on their feet. Despite this, our current administration has not enacted this program, even when faced with the severe need we’ve seen in Florida, Puerto Rico and Texas. Still, I bring this example up because I want to tell you that it’s possible to design efficient programs that serve the most vulnerable after a disaster. I’d add that it’s not only possible. It’s necessary.
Survivors need a case management system that helps them manage the range of needs and let them understand how the process works and where they stand.
6. Program outreach efforts to survivors often fall short.
In South Texas, we had prevailed upon the disaster recovery managers to outreach for home repair and reconstruction programs to the hardest hit homeowners who live in colonias. The local government and outside managers hired a local political consultant to handle the outreach. The report quickly came back that colonia residents were not responding to flyers inviting them to travel to the consultant’s offices in cities up to 40 miles from the colonias to learn about or apply for aid. The local governments announced, in light of the lack of interest, the disaster recovery program would cease outreach efforts in the colonias and concentrate instead on higher income neighborhoods inside the cities.
We enlisted the staffs of two community groups who worked in the colonias to outreach in the colonias again and result was the home reconstruction program was quickly oversubscribed and hundreds of applicants from the colonias had their homes rebuilt.