May 3, 2019

Policy Convening Identifies Ways to Improve Disaster Recovery

Convening panel

On May 1, Enterprise convened a group of over 60 current and former government officials, disaster recovery and resilience experts, and fair housing advocates for a policy event Improving Disaster Recovery and Building Community Resilience hosted at The Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington D.C.

The convening highlighted the need for Congress to permanently authorize the Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) Program at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and identified recommendations for HUD to speed up the recovery process, provide grantees with more guidance and support, and facilitate fairer recovery outcomes.

Enterprise thanks The Pew Charitable Trusts for their partnership in hosting this event and the JPMorgan Chase Foundation whose generous support made the day possible.

Permanent Authorization of CDBG-DR

The convening occurred a month after the Government Accountability Office (GAO) called for the permanent authorization of CDBG-DR and a House Financial Services Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee held a hearing on the need to codify the program. The current system of ad hoc Federal Register guidance associated with one-off appropriations creates unnecessary delays, unclear expectations for grantees, and opportunities for inappropriate or inequitable uses of funds.

The GAO report noted that “permanent statutory authority could help address the challenges grantees face in meeting customized grant requirements for each disaster, such as funding lags, varying requirements, and coordination with multiple programs.” The report also notes that “the expected increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather vents underscores the need for a permanent program to address unmet disaster needs.” Similarly, in the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing, Chairman Al Green (D-TX-9) remarked that “[it is] time for us to stop the reinventing, and to give us a [CDBG-DR] program that we can rely on. In the interim, the grantees and the people that they serve are suffering.”

Convening attendees included disaster recovery and community resilience stakeholders from around the country, including from Texas, Louisiana, Virginia, DC, New Jersey, and New York; current and former government officials who have administered CDBG-DR programs at the federal, state, and local levels; and local leaders experienced in building community resilience and conducting community engagement.

The Honorable Neal Rackleff, former Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development at HUD, who has the distinct background of being the only person to have administered CDBG-DR at both the federal and local levels, provided a keynote address, in which he emphasized the urgent need for HUD to have greater hiring authority and capacity to administer CDBG-DR, which in turn would enable HUD to provide more assistance to grantees and better oversight of grantee use of taxpayer funds.

Panel Insights and Recommendations

Enterprise Senior Vice President for Public Policy and Senior Advisor for Resilience, Marion McFadden, moderated an expert panel that included Holly Leicht, the former Regional Administrator for New York and New Jersey at HUD; Carlos Martín, a Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute; Adam Gordon, Associate Director at the Fair Share Housing Center in New Jersey; and Amy Chester, the Managing Director of Rebuild by Design.

This distinguished panel shared their experiences and insights from working with and researching the CDBG-DR Program from the perspective of federal, state, and local government and conducting community engagement to develop innovative ways to build community resilience.

Panelists emphasized the need for Congress to permanently authorize CDBG-DR, which would allow HUD to do formal rulemaking. Since Congress has not codified CDBG-DR, HUD has never asked for public input on how to improve the program. Permanent authorization and the formal rulemaking process would bring greater transparency to CDBG-DR and result in greater stakeholder engagement in the process.

The panel posited that while HUD’s Federal Register notices have learned from past mistakes and improved over time, HUD currently lacks the capacity to adequately conduct oversight and enforce requirements. More full-time employees at HUD working on disaster recovery would help address this challenge and enable HUD to develop and enforce clearer guidance.

They also recommended HUD be authorized to rapidly release CDBG-DR funds to grantees for technical assistance and capacity building as soon as the President declares a major disaster. 

Additional Themes and Recommendations

Attendees identified a handful of recommendations to HUD on improving the CDBG-DR process, including:

  • Creation of a common application portal through which disaster survivors can submit a single application for federal disaster assistance. Individuals currently need to apply for different sources of federal assistance separately. While it would require interagency collaboration, the common application would save disaster survivors the frustration and confusion of figuring out which funds they are eligible for right after they lost their homes and take the onus of figuring out assistance eligibility from survivors and place it with the government.
  • HUD should provide more clarity on grantees’ statutory obligations to equitably allocate resources to address the unmet needs of renters, homeowners, infrastructure, and economic development. Clearer and standardized rules will save time by eliminating common political flash points that slow down funds. Examples may include setting an income cap on who can by eligible to receive CDBG-DR funds and standards on how grantees can meet their obligations under the Fair Housing Act. According to an audit from the HUD office of Inspector General, as of September 2017, 59 grantees with 112 active CDBG-DR grants, totaling more than $47.4 billion, had to follow requirements contained in 61 different Federal Register notices to manage their rebuilding programs.
  • Greater transparency and distribution of data from HUD and FEMA on unmet needs, natural hazard risk, and social vulnerability to support grantees in their recovery planning and more program data transparency from grantees to ensure that statutory and regulatory obligations are being met.

Next Steps

Later this summer, Enterprise will publish a white paper and related tools informed by this convening that will make practical recommendations to Congress and HUD on improving the CDBG-DR process. The paper will be a resource for HUD, Capitol Hill, grantees, and advocates on how the CDBG-DR funds can get to communities faster and how program outcomes can become more consistent and equitable.

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