House Proposes Needed Resources for Disaster-Impacted Areas
2017 was a brutal year for weather events. Hurricanes caused devastation in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and wildfires continue to burn in California. While each community is facing its own rebuilding challenges, the destruction Hurricane Maria wrought on Puerto Rico was uniquely damaging to the island’s economy, housing, infrastructure, institutions and human capacity. Some of the lights have been turned back on in urban areas like San Juan, but many rural parts of the island still lack electricity, access to safe drinking water, and health care.
The $81 billion disaster assistance supplemental introduced in the House last night goes a long way towards meeting the needs of disaster-impacted areas. The House would provide $26.1 billion for the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program, including $13.6 billion in grants for recovery efforts and $12.5 billion for mitigation projects to protect against future natural disasters.
The supplemental also includes $10 million for technical assistance (TA) and capacity building, a relatively small but vital investment that will set government agencies and local nonprofits up for success.
Enterprise advocated for TA and capacity building funding, because when Washington provides disaster assistance, such as through the CDBG-DR program, even the largest and most sophisticated jurisdictions can struggle to administer the money. Once federal aid is granted and the regulations are in place, even the most well-supported entities can face challenges administering billions of federal dollars.
Scaling up from administering $5 million in CDBG dollars annually to a sudden influx of billions in emergency aid requires a very specific knowledge base. Even New York City, one of the nation's largest grantees supported by the nation's largest network of local housing and community development nonprofits, had challenges building capacity to administer its $4.21 billion CDBG-DR grant after Superstorm Sandy.
The success of a disaster recovery program relies on engagement and cooperation between the grantees and local nonprofit organizations. A relatively small investment in TA and capacity building helps tax dollars go further and facilitate a faster and smoother recovery.
The Role of TA and Capacity Building
TA and capacity building are unique resources that help the people leading the relief effort navigate the new challenges they find themselves suddenly facing—the key difference being that TA supports government agencies, while capacity building supports nonprofit organizations.
The National Resource Network (NRN) program has won bipartisan acclaim for its practical focus on helping localities better manage federal funds by working across silos, and can serve as a guide for TA implementation. NRN brings together experts in economic development, housing, municipal operations, and future-proofing to provide cross-cutting assistance to help communities address their unique challenges.
After previous disasters, HUD contracted TA services out to qualified providers, including Enterprise, who helped grantees deal with immediate challenges so that communities could rebuild efficiently. TA helps governments anticipate and address common challenges faced by CDBG-DR grantees, such as delays caused by procurement, environment reviews, civil rights and equity concerns, and labor shortages.
Capacity building dollars play a very specific purpose in recovery efforts. While needs vary, capacity building funds go towards improving the effectiveness and scale of nonprofit organizations—through hiring additional staff, developing more sophisticated business plans, and providing gap financing for community development projects. Capacity building adds equity to the development process by helping nonprofits navigate regulations and financial planning as effectively as their larger counterparts.
Unique Challenges for Puerto Rico
Disaster recovery work is unusually complex for communities—and will be even more challenging in Puerto Rico. Its housing stock and local housing organizations have experienced chronic underinvestment for decades. Puerto Rico also lacks the robust internal network of nonprofit developers that have proven pivotal on the mainland, and its nonprofits have limited staff, resources, and experience with federal regulations on recovery funding. Nevertheless, nonprofits will need to have a central role in Puerto Rico's housing recovery, because they are closely connected to their communities.
The language barrier poses additional challenges Puerto Rican recovery efforts. Federal regulations and guidance documents are complex and not available in Spanish. Bilingual TA and capacity building can help guide municipal agencies and local nonprofits through the complicated requirements that come with federal funding.
In February and March 2017, before Hurricane Maria, Enterprise awarded nonprofits in Puerto Rico capacity building grants for trainings on financial management, financial reporting, and using Low-Income Housing Tax Credits. These trainings enable nonprofits to use federal resources appropriately and more effectively, which saves scarce taxpayer dollars and prevents fraud, waste, and abuse. These efficient and highly-leveraged resources will help organizations serve more people, create more homes, prevent against future devastation, and save money.