Our ten point plan for rehousing low income Hurricane Ike survivors

Under the current system of FEMA housing assistance low-income families get trapped in temporary housing. This is bad for these families and expensive to the government.

There are many critical housing needs facing Hurricane Ike survivors of all incomes.  Our focus is on the area of housing for low-income families.  This is our ten point plan to rehouse low income Hurricane Ike survivors.

We learned a lot about how low-income families fare in the wake of natural disaster through the Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita.  Here are the things we have to do differently this time.

The most important lesson we have learned from long-term housing recovery in the wake of Hurricane Rita is that the housing needs of low-income disaster survivors are profoundly different from those of higher income families. Government-sponsored disaster assistance provided under the Stafford Act fails to give long-term housing stability to low-income families.

The long-term housing needs of low-income families have not been a priority under the federal disaster assistance system. Federal law contemplates the provision of only temporary housing relief. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is prohibited from paying for what is considered “permanent housing.” Similarly, charitable organizations such as the Red Cross direct the bulk of their resources toward providing temporary housing  assistance to disaster survivors.

Temporary assistance, coupled with private homeowners’ insurance and direct public assistance is often all that is needed to help middle and upper income families reestablish their lives. But low-income families, who typically lack homeowners insurance and lived in unaffordable or substandard housing before a disaster, are not well-served by the existing disaster housing assistance system. This system fails to offer low-income families a clear path to permanent recovery.

The result is that low-income families get trapped in temporary housing.  This is bad for these families and expensive to the government.

Long term recovery has historically not been a federal program but one administered by state and local governments using federal funds.  Before the ongoing Hurricane Rita rebuilding effort, the State of Texas’ approach to disaster housing is to allocate HOME federal block grant funds to a unit of local government (city or county). These entities then provide housing assistance to disaster survivors. This process has proven to be highly inefficient. The provision of housing assistance often takes months- or even years-as local governments develop and administer housing funds. Additionally, localities are charged with the task of administering other-usually higher-priority-public infrastructure relief and rebuilding efforts.

Housing programs take a back seat to these efforts.

Those who think the City of Houston could efficiently administer a housing repair program need only look at the disaster the City has experienced in trying to administer the federally funded rehabilitation program over the past five years.  Imagine the problems the City would experience setting up and administering a much larger program that needs to provide critical housing rehabilitation to get families back into their homes.

For this reason we believe state government should administer the housing rehabilitation and reconstruction program using the policies and infrastructure it has put in place to get assistance to Hurricane Rita survivors.

Here are the two immediate challenges: secure adequate resources to assist with long term housing and develop a program to provide that assistance more rapidly and efficiently.

Here is our 10 ten point plan to apply the lessons of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to make specific improvements to existing programs to rehouse lower income households:

1) Provide temporary housing through HUD Section 8 housing vouchers to all families who were homeless at the time of the hurricane, displaced from government subsidized housing or income eligible for Section 8 assistance.  All households who are elderly or disabled should be provided permanent Section 8 vouchers.

2) Quickly conduct accurate damage assessments.

3) Identify and collect household economic and demographic data needed to determine the type of financial assistance that will be required. Develop a protocol with FEMA to get them to collect useful data about survivors needs.

4) Establish, train and deploy a rapid response team of state employees, local building inspection officials and private organizations to prepare more detailed damage and needs assessments than FEMA provides. Agree upon the data to be collected and the standards to be consistently applied in arriving at damage estimates.

5) Get the accurate damage estimates to Congress within 30 days of the storm. Build support among members of Congress to work quickly with the state to identify and secure funding for needs and break through federal logjams.

6) Establish a housing delivery infrastructure, including program administrators and construction contractors who are prepared to go to work quickly. TDHCA now has in place a program to administer long term housing assistance to Hurricane Rita survivors.  That existing system should be expanded to assist Hurricane Ike survivors rather than inventing a new system.

7) Work out very quickly the type and terms of housing financial assistance that the state will make available and tell the survivors what they are entitled to and when they can expect to receive the assistance.

8 ) Design a program to minimize temporary housing costs. Use funds that would be spent for temporary housing to provide housing equity to disaster survivors. Secure authorization from Congress to carry out a pilot program that modifies the federal Stafford Act to use savings from temporary housing for permanent housing.

9) Be prepared to quickly inform disaster survivors about what options they have and how they can apply for assistance. Prepare public information materials including web, printed and video presentations to provide survivors immediate access to information about how to obtain housing help.

10) Establish relationships and protocols with faith-based organizations that will be providing housing assistance to prioritize the effective use of their volunteer resources and prevent duplication of effort. Integrate their efforts into public long-term recovery programs by conducting joint work write-ups and directing volunteer efforts into emergency rehabilitation that can be preserved as part of comprehensive home rehabilitation.

I will expand on these recommendations over the next few days.

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