The needs of low-income Hurricane Harvey survivors cannot be determined by FEMA data alone

To determine unmet need of survivors of disaster, the state relies heavily on FEMA data, an appropriate source, but one that systematically undercounts hurricane survivors with low or moderate incomes.

Historically, this methodology has resulted in fewer low-income homeowners being given help — which means that when the state calculates need, the needs of these survivors are not documented, and therefore not counted when the state allocates funds. But more on that in a minute.

It’s important to understand the history of a systematic denial of low-income homeowners during previous hurricanes. After hurricanes Ike and Dolly in 2008, many low-income homeowners were denied aid by FEMA inspectors. Though inspectors classified the reason as “insufficient damage,” homeowners were told often that the condition of their home prior to the storm was too poor that there was no way to tell whether the storms had caused the damage.

Inspectors called this “deferred maintenance.”

This barred people from receiving rebuilding help who likely had too few assets and meager savings to keep their home in tiptop shape. It is basically a policy that discriminates against people because they are poor.

Regardless of the conditions of homes up and down the coast, a hurricane came and devastated whole cities and neighborhoods. The 2008 hurricanes ravaged homes and for many low-income people destroyed absolutely everything.

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If it sounds to you like FEMA inspectors behaved badly, you’re in the company of a federal court, which after an eight-year legal battle, ruled last year that FEMA violated the law by using a secret rule to deny more than 24,000 families in the Rio Grande Valley. Texas Housers’ friends and partners La Union del Pueblo Entero and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid filed the lawsuit. As a result, FEMA is not supposed to use this “deferred maintenance” standard anymore.

Whether FEMA is still using the “deferred maintenance” standard or something similar is unclear at this point. This information is not available to the public.

During a Texas Legislative committee this year in Houston, low-income homeowners testified about being denied by FEMA based on the “pre-existing condition” of their home. See below:

Carpenter denied by FEMA because of the pre-existing condition of his home. from Texas Housers on Vimeo.

“Pre-existing condition” sounds a lot like “deferred maintenance,” doesn’t it? Regardless, it has the same practical effect of excluding low-income households from the FEMA database that the General Land Office, which administers disaster recovery for the state, uses to determine need.

Bad FEMA data, data that is based on arbitrarily excluding poor families, not only keeps poor people from getting any financial help from FEMA. The GLO uses the FEMA data to determine critical fund allocation decisions for the forthcoming $5 billion in HUD CDBG-Disaster Recovery funds. So the exclusion of the poor by FEMA is carried through to all the disaster recovery funds because the State relies on FEMA data for planning.

In our comments to the the GLO in its plan for Hurricane Harvey recovery, we make several suggestions to the State to ensure an equitable count of the needs of low-income homeowners:

  • Analyze evidence in legal claims brought against FEMA with regard to the underreporting of damage to low-income housing unites based on FEMA’s informal policy of denying applicants based on deferred maintenance or pre-existing condition;
  • Establish a reasonable multiplier to apply FEMA unmet housing needs reporting to address this bias;
  • Establish a “second look” inspection and review process for homeowners who have been denied FEMA assistance.

It was just 10 years ago that FEMA was ordered to stop using “deferred maintenance” as an excuse for denying homeowners who lost everything. Knowing this history, the State of Texas should supplement FEMA data with the real experiences of vulnerable homeowners who are at risk of going uncounted without any of these interventions above that we propose. A just and equitable recovery depends on this.

The state’s draft action plan for spending $57.8 million in federal disaster recovery funds was released on Jan. 18. The Texas General Land Office, which oversees the administration of the federal funds, has given the public untilFeb. 1 Feb. 20, to comment. We are blogging our comments about the Action Plan every day during the comment period. We’ll be asking fundamental questions about the action plan as we draft our own comments to the GLO to advocate for equitable disaster recovery for all Hurricane Harvey survivors. 


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