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Congress needs to handle the Harvey housing crisis now

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For Texans who will soon begin rebuilding their communities, normalcy cannot return soon enough. If Hurricane Andrew and the excruciatingly slow-moving months following that disaster taught me anything, it’s that recovery never occurs as quickly as it should.

The most difficult stories we will all contend with are yet to come. As the water recedes, the damage will become more starkly apparent and we can only hope that the loss of life remains minimal. As we plan for recovery, our first task will be to decide how we help folks who desperately need to return to the normalcy of their daily lives. That’s not an easy task and will require resources from the government.

Before policymakers begin thinking critically about what is necessary to recover, they should first think about what they should avoid doing. While we should steer clear from wasteful and unnecessary spending, we should also not eliminate programs designed to help Americans during times of crisis. Fortunately, Congress has helped the Trump administration avoid its own disaster by advancing spending bills that are markedly different Trump’s budget.

{mosads}Nonetheless, we should understand what the Trump administration originally sought to do. The Trump budget proposed cutting $667 million from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), mostly from its resiliency programs. Resiliency upgrades help places most vulnerable to catastrophic weather impacts, like hurricanes, and mitigate future potential damage. Cutting those programs makes a bad situation that much worse.

 

Trump’s budget also decimated the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) budget, cutting it by $6.8 billion. It’s important to know that the bulk of those cuts are to programs that many communities use for disaster recovery. Continued cuts to the wrongfully maligned Home Investment Partnerships Program (HOME) and the Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG) are short sighted. HOME is often an invaluable source of critical funding for affordable housing, CDBG funds critical infrastructure like water systems, sewers, streets and lights.

HUD has traditionally administered housing assistance when FEMA concludes its disaster help after most major catastrophes. For example, HUD successfully administered housing for tens of thousands after Hurricane Katrina, the largest and most successful catastrophe-related housing assistance program in American history. Harvey will dwarf the amount of HUD assistance required for the Katrina recovery, yet the Trump administration significantly cut HUD’s funding and its capacity to allocate personnel dedicated to administering disaster relief.

But the most eye-popping $190 million slash was to FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Some argue that the market will step up, while others agree that the NFIP needs to be restructured so that it can be more financially feasible. What I know is that the NFIP itself is indispensable to American communities, especially those in flood prone areas where all the resiliency upgrades in the world could not mitigate damage from floods.

But if the market were to step up and handle the risk, why hasn’t it done so already? Decades ago, the government undertook the flood insurance mission when private insurers who had offered flood insurance withdrew from the market. The loss of private insurers created a crisis forcing the government to fill the supply vacuum. This made economic activity possible in uninsurable areas of the country, including communities along the Mississippi River and many other water byways and shoreline cities such as Houston, Miami, New Orleans and lower Manhattan.

But it’s not just about the money. The Trump administration has clearly struggled to understand FEMA’s importance. Days before Harvey struck Houston, President Trump revoked the President Obama’s executive order making resiliency a significant part of federal emergency preparedness policy. Thankfully, Congress has moved to mitigate some of the damage the Trump administration proposed to do to FEMA, HUD and the NFIP. But it’s not enough. We live in a time when some believe that no product, service or tool should be used if the government is involved. That kind of thinking is unhelpful to any area of the country prone to flooding or that suffers a natural or man-made calamity.

Congress should come to its senses and shore up FEMA’s capacity to provide flood insurance to the nation. It should abandon any Trump administration attempts to cut the budgets of FEMA and HUD because it will utterly destroy the nation’s capacity to help folks like those in Texas suffering today. Our policymakers should spare Harvey victims the debates about debt ceilings, deficit holes and pay-as-you-go budgeting.

Many who represent Texas in Washington have advocated for shrinking FEMA or shuttering HUD. My sense is they are about to re-learn the value of those agencies, as well as others that are equally indispensable to disaster recovery. Hopefully they are paying attention because the capacity of their constituents to recover from what increasingly seems to be the nation’s worst national catastrophe might depend on it.

Orlando J. Cabrera served as assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development during the George W. Bush administration. He was chief executive officer of Florida Housing Finance Corporation, a housing finance agency, and is now a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Arnall Golden Gregory.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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