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senate Bill S. 1605

Should More Survivors of Major Natural Disasters Receive Federal Housing Assistance?

Argument in favor

FEMA’s refusal to enact a Disaster Housing Assistance Program after Hurricane Maria wrought widespread destruction in Puerto Rico is disgraceful. The agency should enact DHAP as soon as possible to enable families in Puerto Rico and other areas affected by natural disasters to access housing assistance. Additionally, the documentation requirements to prove eligibility for housing assistance after a natural disaster should be loosened to allow more types of documentation.

Argument opposed

FEMA hasn’t enacted the Disaster Housing Assistance Program in response to Hurricane Maria because it has a better program, the Direct Lease program, which is more efficient and cost-effective than DHAP. Additionally, while the documentation requirements to prove eligibility for housing assistance after a natural disaster may be overly strict, this bill relaxes them too much and might empower squatters & cheats to access federal funds they’re not entitled to.

bill Progress


  • Not enacted
    The President has not signed this bill
  • The house has not voted
  • The senate has not voted
      senate Committees
      Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs
    IntroducedMay 22nd, 2019

What is Senate Bill S. 1605?

This bill — the Housing Survivors of Major Disasters Act of 2019 — would allow more survivors of major natural disasters to receive housing assistance. To do this, it would expand the types of evidence that can be used to establish residency in a dwelling after natural disasters, allow disaster assistance to be used to fund activities to establish property ownership, require the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to work with the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to immediately set up the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP) for survivors of Hurricane Maria, and require FEMA and HUD to consult about DHAP activation in the event of any future presidential disaster declarations. 

Specifically, this bill would clarify and expand the types of housing that are eligible for disaster housing assistance. It would make funds under the Stafford Act available to be used by individuals or households occupying an otherwise unused property, rented household, boarding-house, bunkhouse, maintenance-of-way car, mobile home, manufactured home, or travel trailer, or who are homeless. It would also allow Stafford Act disaster relief funding to be used for land surveys, land titles, and any other taxes or fees associated with the transfer of property.

This bill would also expand the forms of evidence that can be accepted as proof of residence for the purpose of establishing eligibility for disaster assistance (currently, only a deed or title of ownership of a property suffices). It would allow for the use of any of the following: 

  • A utility bill;
  • Merchant’s statement (e.g., credit card bill); 
  • Pay stub from an employer; 
  • Driver’s license or state-issued identification card;
  • Mortgage payment booklet or other mortgage documents; 
  • Property title of mobile home;
  • Real estate property tax receipts; 
  • School registration containing address of self, child, or children;
  • A will and testament with the name and address of the individual;
  • Medical records;
  • Charitable donation receipts; or 
  • Any other documentation, certification, identification or proof of occupancy or ownership that can reasonably link the individual requesting assistance to damaged property. 

This bill would require the FEMA administrator to create and distribute a form statement that applicants may use to self-certify for assistance. It also specifies that these statements are exempt from public notice and comment periods, and don’t need to be notarized.

This bill also specifies that applicants for assistance under the Stafford Act in 2017 or 2018 may have 180 days to reopen or appeal a determination on their application(s) for assistance under the new terms created by this bill’s enactment. 

Finally, this bill would require FEMA to enter into an interagency agreement with HUD to ensure the implementation of the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP) within 60 days after this bill’s enactment. Going forward, FEMA and HUD would be required to engage in consultations regarding DHAP’s implementation whenever the president declares a major disaster. 

Impact

Natural disasters; housing for those affected by natural disasters; FEMA; HUD; DHAP; Stafford Act; federal housing assistance for those affected by natural disasters; forms of evidence that can be accepted as proof of residence for the purpose of establishing eligibility for disaster assistance; and the FEMA administrator.

Cost of Senate Bill S. 1605

A CBO cost estimate is unavailable.

More Information

In-DepthSen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) reintroduced this bill from the 115th Congress to allow survivors of major natural disaster to receive housing assistance:

"Catastrophic natural disasters from Puerto Rico to California have devastated families and left them searching for safe, stable and affordable housing. The Housing Survivors of Major Disasters Act would push the Federal government to step up for these families and make it easier for them to access the help they are entitled to and desperately need."

When she introduced this bill in the 115th Congress after the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) refused to activate the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP) to provide stable housing for survivors of major hurricanes, Sen. Warren said

"The federal government is failing the people of Puerto Rico who are still recovering from the devastating hurricanes — we owe our fellow U.S. citizens much better. When disaster strikes, people who are displaced deserve safe, stable housing and a chance to get back on their feet. If FEMA won't do its job, Congress should step up and act to help the thousands of evacuees who are now living in Massachusetts and across the country."   

Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY), who has sponsored the House version of this legislation in both the 115th and 116th Congresses, says

“What we are witnessing with the delay to rebuild Puerto Rico is unheard of and never would have happened in any other community. The treatment of the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico by the Trump administration is a slap in the face and blatant disregard of the lives of thousands of individuals and families in need. The Trump administration's inability to provide adequate disaster relief, coupled with FEMA's crippling delay and lack of coordination with housing authorities to issue disaster recovery funding is appalling and outright embarrassing. I am proud to join Senator Warren and our bicameral colleagues to introduce the Housing Survivors of Majors Disasters Act of 2019 to say enough is enough and the people of Puerto Rico deserve better."

The National Low Income Housing Coalition has supported this legislation in both the 115th and 116th Congresses. Its president and CEO, Diane Yentel, says

“On behalf of the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition, I applaud Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congressman Adriano Espaillat for introducing legislation to enact critically-needed reforms to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to ensure that the lowest-income survivors — including seniors, people with disabilities, families with children, people experiencing homelessness, and other individuals - receive the housing assistance they need to rebuild their lives. Congress should immediately enact this legislation and hold FEMA accountable for its continued failure to address the housing needs of the most vulnerable survivors, which has forced thousands of families to return to uninhabitable homes, sleep in cars or shelters, double or triple up with other low-income families, or pay far too much of their incomes on rent, putting them at higher risk of evictions and, in worst cases, homelessness."

In a June 2018 fact sheet, FEMA said that it’s a myth that DHAP is needed to address the housing needs of Puerto Rico survivors. It argues that DHAP isn’t necessary to house displaced disaster survivors, and claims that DHAP has been cited by the Office of Inspector General as “inefficient and not cost effective.” FEMA stated that the agency’s Direct Lease program is being implemented in Puerto Rico to provide the same housing option to disaster survivors as they’d receive under DHAP in a more efficient and cost-effective manner. 

Furthermore, FEMA claimed that its Direct Lease Assistance program eliminates DHAP’s bureaucratic challenges by: 

  • Eliminating the burden on survivors to find their own rental units;
  • Providing rent directly to property owners at no cost to survivors;
  • Reducing the number of federal agencies involved; and
  • Decreasing overall administrative costs for the agency.

This legislation has 12 Senate cosponsors, including 11 Democrats and one Independent, in the 116th Congress. Its House companion, sponsored by Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY), has three bipartisan House cosponsors, including two Democrats and one Republican. As of September 2, 2019, neither bill had received a committee vote.

In the 115th Congress, this legislation was called the Housing Victims of Major Disaster Act of 2018. It had 11 Senate cosponsors, including 10 Democrats and one Independent, and didn’t receive a committee vote. Its House companion, sponsored by Rep. Espaillat, had 26 bipartisan House cosponsors, including 25 Democrats and one Republican, and also didn’t receive a committee vote

This legislation is supported by the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), the Hispanic Federation, and UnidosUS in the current session of Congress. In the 115th Congress, it was endorsed by the Hispanic Federation, Oxfam, the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, the Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition and the American Federation of Teachers.


Of NoteThis legislation was introduced after a string of natural disasters that created housing crises, including Hurricanes Maria and Irma, Hurricane Florence, the flooding of the Missouri River Basin and the wildfires in California. After Hurricane Maria, many survivors were denied FEMA aid because the documentation required to prove ownership of a damaged property had been lost in the storm or was never issued in the first place.

The Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP) is a partnership between FEMA and HUD that provides subsidies to help survivors pay rent, put down a security deposit, or pay for utilities. It was implemented after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. DHAP has been enacted after Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike, and Sandy.


Media:

Summary by Lorelei Yang

(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / CHUYN)

AKA

Housing Survivors of Major Disasters Act of 2019

Official Title

A bill to make available necessary disaster assistance for families affected by major disasters, and for other purposes.

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