As the end of the 117th Congress nears, dozens of bills remain stalled—including more than 15 with bipartisan support—that represent various attempts to reform FEMA-, HUD-, and SBA-administered disaster recovery programs. While some of these bills include meaningful and potentially impactful program improvements, they are generally narrow in scope and being advanced independent of one another—not as a coherent, comprehensive reform effort.
Our nation’s disaster recovery system is complex and multifaceted, including a slate of federal programs, governed by a national disaster recovery framework, which collectively attempt to meet the needs of individuals and communities affected by disasters. Legislative reform requires a holistic, coordinated approach that considers how various programs interact and what is the optimal role for each federal agency. A package of legislative changes should complement each other and address the gaps and shortcomings of the current disaster recovery system.
The table below outlines the major bipartisan disaster bills that are pending in Congress to help lawmakers understand what reforms are on the table, with the aim of informing a bipartisan legislative reform effort that improves recovery outcomes through a comprehensive and harmonized approach in the 118th Congress.
Here are some takeaways from some of the major bipartisan bills.
FEMA and HUD housing assistance
A pair of House bills would expand FEMA’s ability to provide housing assistance:
- H.R. 8416, the Disaster Survivors Fairness Act, a package of FEMA reforms, includes a provision that would expand the use of FEMA’s direct assistance for housing repairs and also make damaged homes eligible for FEMA hazard mitigation assistance (as opposed to the current statute limiting eligibility to homes that were rendered uninhabitable). It would also extend authorization for a pilot program giving states and local governments the option to assume responsibility for post-disaster housing missions—which has had limited uptake given necessary pre-certification processes as well as stringent procurement and cost guidelines.
- H.R. 5774, the Expediting Disaster Recovery Act, which passed the full House, authorizes FEMA to provide financial assistance for “unmet needs”—a term that generally refers to HUD’s responsibilities in disaster recovery. The bill would give FEMA expanded flexibility to provide the type of disaster-related housing assistance often carried out by HUD, with the aim of allowing communities quicker access to resources to initiate recovery efforts while waiting for HUD’s assistance, which is subject to appropriations and thus takes longer to disburse.
Meanwhile, H.R. 4707/ S. 2471, the Reforming Disaster Recovery Act, would permanently authorize HUD’s Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program, instead of relying on an endless series of supplemental appropriations and Federal Register notices that prevent the timely delivery of aid. CDBG-DR is the federal government’s primary program to provide long-term disaster recovery funding, including substantial housing assistance. Congress has appropriated about $100 billion to CDBG-DR since 2001. Permanently authorizing CDBG-DR has been a top priority for BPC Action—and advocates are hoping that a version of the authorizing legislation is included in must-pass National Defense Authorization Act or fiscal year 2023 appropriations legislation.
It’s also worth noting that HUD recently announced it was launching the new Rapid Unsheltered Survivor Housing (RUSH) program, which will provide funding for emergency shelter, rapid re-housing, outreach, and other assistance to people facing the risk of homelessness in the wake of a disaster. In recent years, FEMA has declined to activate a separate HUD initiative to support low-income disaster victims, the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP), but the new RUSH program enables HUD to address the post-disaster housing needs of this vulnerable group on its own initiative.
Because HUD has an extensive history with housing assistance and relationships with public housing authorities (PHAs) across the nation, the agency may be more effective at meeting the medium to long-term housing needs of disaster survivors. While there is certainly room for both FEMA and HUD to be involved in sheltering and housing disaster victims during the response phase, Congress should be deliberate in assigning clearly defined roles for each agency that play to their strengths, allowing the two agencies to coordinate and avoiding disjointed and duplicative efforts. The current bipartisan FEMA and HUD housing bills do not appear to be drafted in concert, and as a result it is not clear how FEMA and HUD’s housing efforts would be integrated if these proposals are enacted.
Data-sharing and streamlining applications
Multiple, duplicative, and complicated applications are currently a major burden for disaster victims, while a lack of interagency data-sharing causes delays and impedes coordination. H.R. 8416, the Disaster Survivors Fairness Act, mentioned in the previous section, would also direct FEMA—in consultation with HUD and SBA—to create a web-based tool to share data across agencies and develop a universal application for individuals impacted by disasters. The legislation also removes obstacles to sharing that information among agencies and levels of government by providing workarounds to existing statutes. Similar language is in S. 4599, the Disaster Assistance Simplification Act, a Senate bill more narrowly focused on data-sharing and the universal application.
H.R. 5689, the Resilient AMERICA Act, which passed in the House, would double funding for FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) grant program, which provides communities with resources to plan and implement hazard mitigation projects. The bill would also fund resources and incentives for communities to retrofit homes and adopt modern building and construction codes, as well as expand the scope of the post-disaster Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) to help prevent utility outages during disasters.
As we wrote about in a previous blog, a pair of bipartisan bills have also been introduced to support chief resilience offices—government departments dedicated to managing interagency efforts to mitigate risks and protect communities from disasters:
- H.R. 7178, the Champion Local Efforts to Advance Resiliency (CLEAR) Act would create a program at HUD to provide grants to states and tribal nations to establish and maintain their own CROs.
- H.R. 6461/S. 3531, the National Climate Adaptation and Resiliency Strategy (NCARS) Act, would establish a National Chief Resilience Officer in the White House and require the development of a whole-of-government National Climate Adaptation and Resilience Strategy.
The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is a public insurance program managed by FEMA for properties with significant flood risk, requiring floodplain management standards for at-risk communities. Despite prior federal action to address NFIP’s fiscal stability, the program is again over $20 billion in debt—evidence that the program is not financially sustainable if it intends to rely on premium payments to cover its expenses, as major flood events result in widespread home damages with enormous costs. The program struggles to balance the competing objectives of communicating risk and incentivizing hazard mitigation with maintaining affordability for homeowners. A pair of bipartisan bills attempt to make changes to the program.
- H.R. 5802/S. 3128, the National Flood Insurance Program Reauthorization and Reform Act would reauthorize NFIP for five years, cap premium increases at 9%, provide means-tested vouchers for low- and medium-income households to afford insurance premiums, and increase insurance coverage for mitigation projects. The bill would also increase funding for mapping technology—as the maps that have historically been used to communicate risk have been troublingly inaccurate.
- H.R. 2632, the Build for Future Disasters Act would end NFIP subsidies for newly constructed homes in floodplains. The bill aims to limit future federal contributions for NFIP claims—which would be greater if the federal government remains on the hook to continue covering new at-risk properties at a subsidized rate—and better communicate the risk of flood hazards to homeowners and their properties.
The most significant disaster recovery reform legislation in recent history—the Disaster Recovery Reform Act (DRRA), which passed in 2018—contained key program and policy changes but was FEMA-centric, failing to address the broader scope of problems with and potential improvements for federal disaster recovery assistance. While proponents of the bills outlined above may find a legislative avenue for advancement this Congress in the upcoming National Defense Authorization Act and fiscal year 2023 appropriations legislation—which may also include supplemental funding for recovery efforts in Florida after Hurricane Ian and Puerto Rico after Hurricane Fiona—more holistic reform will likely spill over into the 118th Congress.
To be effective, a comprehensive reform effort next Congress must acknowledge that multiple agencies are involved in disaster response—which has the benefit of leveraging agencies’ differing strengths but also poses challenges for interagency coordination—and address key barriers that limit the impact, efficiency, and equity of recovery efforts. As climate change continues to cause increasingly catastrophic events, enhancing efforts to prepare for and build back from disasters is vital—and vulnerable communities cannot afford to wait years for the federal government to make improvements. Congress should identify the highest priority, bipartisan reforms for disaster recovery and move them to the top of the legislative agenda.
See disaster legislation in the 117th Congress endorsed by BPC Action:
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