The loss of life and property due to the California wildfires is shocking and heartbreaking, as is the Trump administration’s inept response to the deepened housing crisis created by this and other disasters in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Carolinas.
Recent disasters have caused immense damage to homes. California’s Camp Fire has damaged 12,000 homes, just one year after other fires destroyed thousands more, increasing rents by 30 percent. In the Florida Panhandle, up to 20,000 people became homeless following Hurricane Michael. Hurricanes Florence and Harvey harmed tens of thousands of homes in North Carolina and Texas, and Maria damaged over 1,000,000 homes in Puerto Rico.
Even before the disasters, these communities faced severe shortages of affordable rental homes for the lowest income families. Nearly three in four of the poorest families paid at least half of their incomes on rent, leaving few resources for other basic needs, like food, healthcare, and transportation. Unable to find affordable homes in the aftermath of disaster, they have been left to create tent cities in Walmart parking lots, to double or triple up with other low-income families, or stay in crowded motel rooms dispersed throughout the country for months. After each storm, the lowest income and most vulnerable survivors became homeless.
The administration has failed to address survivors’ most basic need: a safe, stable, affordable home.
FEMA is inexplicably slow to provide temporary housing. California families sleep in tent cities; those in Panama City, Florida, had to wait more than a month after Hurricane Michael decimated their homes before FEMA trailers began to arrive. They sleep in crowded shelters, the hallways of damaged and moldy apartment buildings, and cars. Low-income families whose homes were damaged by Hurricanes Michael and Florence face attempted evictions.
After each disaster, FEMA Administrator Brock Long refused to activate proven housing solutions, like the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP), to provide stable homes to the most vulnerable survivors as it did successfully after previous storms, from Hurricane Katrina to Superstorm Sandy. DHAP provides temporary rental assistance and case management to low-income disaster victims, helping them find permanent housing, secure employment or connect to needed benefits. FEMA has rejected requests for DHAP by governors, Congressmembers, survivors and advocates.
The agency’s Transitional Shelter Assistance (TSA) motel program is unusable for many low-income survivors: there are not enough participating hotels, families cannot afford to pay “resort” fees or security deposits, or they have no credit card to show at check-in. By imposing arbitrary deadlines, FEMA pressures survivors to leave the motels regardless of whether their homes are repaired or they have secured alternative housing. When FEMA evicted survivors of Hurricane Maria from motels this summer, hundreds became homeless.
FEMA consistently creates barriers that prevent low-income people from receiving assistance. According to Texas Housers, households with incomes above $70,000 accounted for about 24 percent of applications for assistance following Hurricane Harvey, but only 10 percent of the denials; meanwhile, households with incomes below $30,000 accounted for roughly the same proportion of applications (28 percent), but nearly half (48 percent) of FEMA denials, even though low income families were most severely impacted. FEMA denied assistance to 60 percent of applicants in Puerto Rico, in part because FEMA refused to recognize local landownership practices. After advocates on the island worked with FEMA to create a tool to help survivors overcome these barriers, FEMA has not notified survivors so they could receive the assistance to which they are entitled.
FEMA is unwilling and incapable of handling the housing needs of low-income disaster survivors. HUD is better equipped with the expertise and infrastructure to handle these needs, but while career and some political staff show leadership and skill in this area, most notably the deputy secretary, Secretary Carson has shown no urgency to resolve the homeless and housing crises emerging from the disasters.
The Republican-controlled Congress has also shirked its responsibility to hold the administration to account. House and Senate congressional committees have not held a single oversight hearing on the disasters’ impact on the lowest income people and their unmet housing needs. Instead, Congress recently passed legislation to make it easier for FEMA to ignore the housing needs of low-income survivors.
The next Congress must do what the current Congress has not: hold the administration accountable and ensure that low-income disaster survivors are provided with stable, affordable homes so they can recover. It’s the least we can do for fellow Americans who have lost so much.
Diane Yentel is the president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which was founded in 1974 and works for socially just public policy that assures people with the lowest incomes have affordable and decent homes.