May 31, 2018

Senators Introduce Bill to Provide Stable Housing for Hurricane Survivors

Legislation Comes After Trump Administration Refused to Activate Program to Aid Evacuees from Puerto Rico

Bill Text (PDF) | Fact Sheet (PDF)

Washington, DC - A group of eight U.S. senators today announced legislation that would activate the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP) to provide stable housing for survivors of major hurricanes. The senators introduced the legislation after the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) refused to activate DHAP despite urgent need and requests from Members of Congress and from the Governor of Puerto Rico. The Housing Victims of Major Disasters Act of 2018 will be introduced by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).

"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," Senator Warren said. "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."         

"As we brace for the start of hurricane season, it is inexcusable that we continue to witness a complete abdication of leadership from the Trump administration in assisting those devastated by the hurricane season of last year," said Senator Markey. "American citizens deserve far better than the mistreatment our Puerto Rican brothers and sisters have received, and we must push for action in Congress so that they are at least provided the housing security they deserve."

"This legislation will help provide families who fled Hurricane Maria with a fundamental need: a roof over their heads," said Senator Blumenthal. "The failure of our federal government to provide these kinds of basic necessities to our fellow Americans in the wake of a natural disaster is unforgivable. The administration's past failures to adequately address this crisis shouldn't prevent us from taking action now."

DHAP is a partnership between the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and FEMA and it provides subsidies that help survivors pay rent, put down a security deposit, or pay for utilities. The program was implemented after previous major disasters, including Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. Despite the large-scale damage caused by Hurricanes Maria in Puerto Rico, FEMA has refused to set up DHAP as part of its recovery efforts.

The Housing Victims of Major Disasters Act of 2018 would force action by requiring FEMA to work with HUD to set up DHAP immediately for survivors of Hurricane Maria, by requiring FEMA and HUD to consult about setting up DHAP in the event of any future presidential disaster declarations, and by establishing measures to aid evacuees who lack formal legal documentation for their homes or who need to gain title to their land.

"It's been nearly 9 months since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico and many of our fellow United States citizens are still struggling to obtain basic and livable housing," said Rep. Adriano Espaillat (NY-13), who introduced the Housing Victims of Major Disasters Act in the House earlier this Congress. "Thousands of residents remain without adequate resources or assistance, only half of the population have reliable electricity and water, medical supplies are scarce, schools are closing and families are having to leave their homes because resources have remained limited. For Puerto Rico residents without land permits, the circumstances are even more dire and we know that FEMA has only approved 40% of Individual and Household grants, citing this as an issue. With hurricane season around the corner and FEMA's announcement to end the Transitional Shelter Assistance (TSA) program, we need this legislation enacted into law. I commend Senator Warren for introducing this bill in the Senate to specifically address the critical needs and ongoing challenges that these residents continue to face nearly half a year later."

The legislation is supported by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Oxfam, the Hispanic Federation, the Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition, and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

"Senator Warren's Housing Victims of Major Disasters Act will provide FEMA with critically needed flexibility after natural disasters to ensure that people can get access to the assistance they need," said Oxfam America's Director of Government Affairs Linda Delgado.  "In Puerto Rico, it will help those impacted by Hurricane Maria overcome the huge roadblocks in accessing funds from FEMA's Individual and Households Program due to land title issues on the island. The legislation will also benefit others in future natural disasters."

"NLIHC and its Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition strongly support legislation offered by Senator Warren to hold FEMA accountable for its continued refusal to provide critical housing assistance to thousands of Puerto Rican families displaced after Hurricane Maria," said Diane Yentel, President and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. "By rejecting Puerto Rico Governor Rossello's call for assistance more than five months ago, FEMA has chosen to deny vulnerable survivors, including the lowest income seniors, people with disabilities, and families with children, the stable homes they need to get back on their feet. It is vital that Congress enact Senator Warren's bill immediately, before the new hurricane season threatens to put even more families at risk of evictions and, in worst cases, homelessness."

A fact sheet about the bill is available here, and the full text of the bill is available here. Companion legislation previously was introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), Congresswoman Jenniffer González-Colón (R-P.R.), and 16 other cosponsors. The Senate bill will be formally introduced when the Senate returns next week from recess.

Since Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Senator Warren has:

  • Led her colleagues in writing to the Internal Revenue Service requesting information on whether the IRS and its contractors have implemented the debt collection program in a manner consistent with the law for taxpayers impacted by federally declared disasters.
  • Co-sponsored legislation by Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) to force FEMA to continue providing housing assistance to storm victims.
  • Led her colleagues in urging FEMA to extend benefits for the Transitional Shelter Assistance program to Puerto Rico. A follow-up letter was sent on April 21.
  • Written to the Office of Management and Budgetrequesting information on how a proposal to reorganize and privatize the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics (PRIS) would affect the Federal Statistical System, including preparations for the 2020 Census. The lawmakers sent a follow-up letter to OMB on May 16
  • Joined Representative Nydia Velázquez's letter to urge the Federal Communications Commission not to reduce the reach of its Lifeline program in Puerto Rico.
  • Called on FEMA to immediately work with HUD to provide longer-term housing for Hurricane Maria survivors.
  • Joined her colleagues in sending a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos opposing the planned appropriations process to distribute disaster aid funding to colleges impacted by the hurricanes and natural disasters.
  • Led her colleagues in calling on President Trump to hire a Homeland Security Advisor who takes seriously the role of climate change in triggering severe weather events that threaten the safety and security of our nation.
  • Co-sponsored a resolution by Senator Robert Menendez expressing concern about Puerto Rico six months after Hurricane Maria and acknowledging that the federal government must do more for the island.
  • Joined her colleagues in writing to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to request information about the draw-down of Army Corps personnel working on electricity restoration, especially on the island of Vieques.
  • Led her colleagues in writing to FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to request information on federal efforts to restore the electric grid in Puerto Rico, nearly six months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. 
  • Called on the Treasury Department to provide to Puerto Rico the full Community Disaster Loan appropriated by Congress, and to offer terms that will promote the island's recovery.
  • Led a group of three senators in requesting information on FEMA's plans to prepare for the upcoming hurricane season following the catastrophes in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 
  • Joined Senator Blumenthal in calling on the Department of Justice to investigate the contracting process for relief and recovery efforts in Puerto Rico.
  • Along with colleagues from both chambers of Congress and both sides of the aisle, reminded Puerto Rico's Oversight Board that federal relief funds for Puerto Rico are intended for disaster relief and rebuilding, not for paying creditors.
  • Urged FEMA to extend benefits for the Transitional Shelter Assistance program to Puerto Rico evacuees.
  • Requested that the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security expand its review of FEMA's contracting in Puerto Rico to include the $156 million contract awarded to Tribute Contracting LLC for self-heating meals.
  • Written to the Office of Management and Budget requesting information on how a proposal to reorganize and privatize the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics (PRIS) would affect the Federal Statistical System, including preparations for the 2020 Census.
  • Led her colleagues in the Massachusetts congressional delegation in writing to the Food and Drug Administration highlighting the impact of drug and medical device shortages on Massachusetts medical centers after Hurricane Maria.
  • Led the Massachusetts congressional delegation in writing to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to request information on SAMHSA's efforts to address mental health challenges in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
  • Led a congressional delegation trip to Puerto Rico to conduct oversight of Hurricane Maria recovery efforts.
  • Led eight of her colleagues on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee in writing to HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to request that the Committee hold hearings to assess the challenges facing the health and educational systems of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
  • Called for an investigation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) decision to award over $30 million in contracts to Bronze Star LLC for temporary roofing materials in Puerto Rico that were never delivered. (The DHS IG has said it will investigate.)
  • Introduced a comprehensive plan, along with Senator Sanders and colleagues, to address the immediate humanitarian needs in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and ensure that the islands not only recover, but are able to rebuild in a way that empowers them to thrive.
  • Led five of her Senate colleagues in writing to the Department of Defense to request information on the Department's efforts to provide medical care in the aftermath of Hurricanes Maria, and to request information on the role of the USNS Comfort in the Department's Puerto Rico response efforts. 
  • Joined colleagues in urging Senate appropriators to include in a third disaster supplemental bill additional funding to help schools impacted by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
  • Urged Puerto Rico's Financial Oversight and Management Board to request that the Court overseeing Puerto Rico's debt restructuring completely write off the Island's debt obligations.
  • Led a group of 12 senators asking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for information about water- and vector-borne diseases in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • Written to the Trump Administration outlining what ought to be included in a third disaster supplemental appropriations bill to address the damage caused by hurricanes and wildfires across the country.
  • Joined colleagues in demanding federal agencies expedite power restoration efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • Joined in leading a group of 7 senators in pushing the Trump administration to increase efforts on Vieques and Culebra, especially securing the Vieques Superfund site.
  • Urged the Department of Education to use its discretion to help college students and student loan borrowers displaced or otherwise unable to continue their education in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.  
  • Led a group of senators urging DHS to take steps to ensure the accuracy of the official fatality count in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
  • Called for Puerto Rico's debt relief during a Capitol Hill rally in coordination with the #JustRecovery march.
  • Participated in a FEMA briefing on the status of recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • Led a coalition of senators in a letter to President Trump, urging him to step up disaster recovery efforts on the Puerto Rican islands of Vieques and Culebra.
  • Held community meetings in Massachusetts to discuss the economic and humanitarian crises on the islands.
  • Pressed President Trump to take eight immediate, specific actions in response to the crisis in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • Urged HHS to provide additional resources and better coordinate efforts to combat the growing public health crisis on the ground.
  • Called on the President to use his authority under the Defense Production Act to more swiftly respond to the disaster.
  • Written to Republican leadership requesting that Congress be allowed to promptly take up legislation to provide the necessary aid to the U.S. citizens living on the islands.  
  • Asked President Trump to waive the local cost-sharing requirement for the hurricane response in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and for the federal government to fully cover recovery expenses.
  • Joined Senator Markey in calling for a resolution to the Univision-Verizon retransmission dispute, to hasten the restoration of Spanish-language news programming in the wake of the hurricanes.