The Reforming Disaster Recovery Act of 2019 succeeds in the House of Representatives, but more work lies ahead

The Federal Reforming Disaster Recovery Act of 2019 (RDRA) passed in the U.S. House of Representatives on November 18, 2019 with, while not unanimous support, a bi-partisan yea vote from 219 Democrats and 71 Republicans. But notable for Texas communities, many of whom have been devastated by flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes, and wildfires in recent years, 12 Texas Democrats and 0 Texas Republicans voted in favor of the bill.

CDBG-DR funding is often the only source of relief for the lowest-income residents impacted by a disaster. It is a “backstop for any remaining unmet needs in the most severely impacted communities, and a bridge between acute disaster relief and long-term community planning and housing needs.” The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires that 70% of any CDBG-DR allocation is spent on assisting Low to Moderate Income (LMI) persons. LMI households are those that make 80% or less of the applicable Area Median Income (AMI). Looking at 2018 income information in Houston, for example, a household of 4 people with an annual total income of $59,900 or less would be eligible to take advantage of that 70% of set-aside funds. 

Although the Texas General Land Office (GLO) has advocated against the LMI requirement in the CDBG-DR program, HUD has continued to prioritize the residents most in need by disallowing the GLO’s attempts to reduce the amount of funding set aside for LMI households.

And despite the fact that HUD has managed almost $50 billion in disaster-relief funding since the first allocation in the early 1990s, CDBG-DR is not a codified program, meaning there is no annual appropriation of CDBG-DR funding and no regulations specific to how the disaster recovery program operates. Instead, a President must declare a federal disaster in order for Congress to appropriate CDBG-DR funds, but that Congress is not mandated to appropriate them.

Because there are no regulations outlining the allocation process, there are issues with the CDBG-DR program and an inconsistency with which the program is implemented after each new disaster. Strikingly, there is huge variation in how quickly Congress authorizes CDBG-DR funding for any given disaster. In some cases — Puerto Rico is an excellent example — it has taken more than a year to get funding to affected residents once Congress has finalized appropriations. In these situations, residents who can’t otherwise afford to repair their homes may be forced to live in dangerous and unhealthy conditions, including dealing with mold infestations or roofs in disrepair such that homeowners have to put tarps over them to prevent rain from getting inside. Additionally, because each CDBG-DR appropriation is subject to different regulations, it has been extremely difficult to track the outcomes of the activities funded by the program

The lack of data transparency and difficulty to track the outcomes or the effectiveness of the CDBG-DR grant programs to assist LMI households in long-term disaster recovery is deeply concerning. Community members and groups like Texas Housers are capable of only so much in comprehensively monitoring sub-recipients of the money accountable for the 70% LMI requirement. There is a real danger that Texas municipalities are not spending CDBG-DR money in a manner that affirmatively furthers fair housing or distributes resources equitably to low-income renters and homeowners of color. 

The RDRA was introduced by Representatives Ann Wagner (R-MO) and Al Green (D-TX) and, if enacted, would permanently authorize the Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR), providing much-needed safeguards in the program and consistent regulatory requirements to ensure that disaster relief funding is spent equitably after every disaster.

Key provisions of the bill would:

  • Require that funding is spent on both affordable housing and infrastructure improvements in a manner that equitably benefits homeowners, renters, and people experiencing homelessness;
  • Prioritize the one-for-one replacement of public or federally subsidized rental units;
  • Require all federal agencies to coordinate and share vital disaster-recovery data; 
  • Require HUD to make all data about how federal disaster recovery money was spent and the demographic information about populations impacted by disasters;
  • Require federal agencies to develop a single, common application for receiving assistance; and
  • Require all projects to meet mitigation and resiliency standards that will ensure any improvements will be more likely to survive future disasters.

The RDRA is currently in front of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. Texas is not represented in this committee, however, this matter is still in the process of making it to the Senate floor where Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz will have a vote. We will be watching the Reforming Disaster Recovery Act closely and support its goal of making equity in Disaster Recovery the prevailing standard.