The Senate voted to raise the debt limit and introduce $15 billion in hurricane relief funds last week, well before Hurricane Irma arrived on the doorstep of U.S. territories in the Caribbean Sea. Now that the storm is lashing Florida, the decision looks more than prudent.
About half of the approved disaster recovery money take the form of Community Development Block Grant funds. Under the Trump administration’s proposed budget for 2018, though, this entire category of funding—the program itself—would be eliminated.
About half of the Senate appropriation, $7.4 billion, goes to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency Disaster Relief Fund. The U.S. Small Business Administration gets $450 million for disaster-relief loans. The remaining $7.4 billion goes to Community Development Block Grand Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds, which can be used to rebuild housing for both owners and renters.
“It won’t be enough, certainly for both states [Texas and Florida], to recover from their housing needs for homeowners and renters, but it’s a really good down payment,” says Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “It’s a pool of flexible funds that local communities can use to meet a variety of needs created by disasters. First after Hurricane Katrina, and pretty much every disaster since, there’s been an allocation of disaster CDBG funds.”
Vulnerable households may be among those likely to see recovery aid in Houston, South Florida, and beyond. By law, 70 percent of the CDBG-DR funds must go to low-income households. After previous natural disasters, Congress has adjusted this formula somewhat for relief appropriations; no such language holds in this bill.
At the same time, CDBG-DR funds typically go to homeowners, not renters. Some cities and states have used disaster funds to set up programs to rebuild or repair rental units, but individual renters rarely receive disaster CDBG funds to pay their rent. HUD’s Disaster Housing Assistance Programs (DHAP) includes disaster vouchers under the Disaster Voucher Program. This works typically follows a mission agreement between FEMA and HUD whereby the former reimburses the latter for disaster vouchers for renters.
The office of the HUD Assistant Secretary for Public and Indian Housing—the most senior political person who would oversee the department overseeing the DVP program—is currently vacant. The Trump administration has not nominated a candidate to fill this seat.
Congress has so far declined to take up the Trump administration on its efforts to slash HUD’s budget. If anything, leaders in the House and Senate may need to go to the mat for more disaster relief funds for the areas affected by the Harvey and Irma storms. Over the longer term, rebuilding over the long term will mean shoring up the things about CDBG that are working. But right now, Congress is taking the right steps to get aid flowing quickly.
“It often takes a lot of time even after the initial allocation from Congress for states and local communities to do [their] planning and put those dollars to use,” Yentel says.