September 30, 2022

Warren and Colleagues Reintroduce Legislation to Help Survivors of Natural Disasters

Bill Text (pdf) - Section by Section (pdf)

Washington, DC – United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a member of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, along with Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Dick Durbin (D-Il.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), reintroduced the Senate companion to the Housing Survivors of Major Disasters Act, led by Representative Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) in the U.S. House of Representatives.  This legislation would help communities affected by major natural disasters access housing assistance. The reintroduction of this bill is particularly timely given the recent damage caused by Hurricanes Ian and Fiona. The reintroduction also follows the recent 5-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria. 

"We’ve witnessed the devastating impact that catastrophic natural disasters have on families, leaving many in search of safe, stable, and affordable housing," said Senator Elizabeth Warren. "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 help in times of need."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) often turns away eligible disaster survivors who are unable to present property titles, written leases, and other similar documents to show residency and occupancy of disaster-damaged property. In areas where mobile homes and alternative property ownership methods are prevalent, such as in Puerto Rico, the Gulf Coast, Northern California, and the Pacific Northwest, disaster survivors can be prevented from accessing aid because of this requirement. 

After Hurricane Maria in 2017, 77,000 households in Puerto Rico were wrongfully denied assistance by FEMA due to title-documentation issues. While FEMA ultimately made accommodations for those in informal housing and for those who had lost documents in the hurricane, those accommodations were implemented unevenly, and FEMA did not reconsider prior denials of assistance. 

In addition, following the hurricane, FEMA refused to stand up the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP), an existing FEMA and HUD program that provides housing vouchers and wrap-around support services for survivors. This program, which has been implemented following Hurricane Katrina and similar disasters, has helped survivors pay for rent, security deposits, and utility services. Despite urgent need and requests from members of Congress and the governor of Puerto Rico, the Trump Administration refused to activate DHAP after Hurricane Maria.

The Housing Survivors of Major Disasters Act would:

  • Allow for disaster relief funds to be used for the acquisition of a property title in regions where a natural disaster is declared by the president.
  • Require FEMA to consider additional forms of evidence when determining assistance eligibility, including a utility bill, merchant statement, pay stub, current driver’s license or state-issued ID, property title or mobile home certificate of title, property tax receipt, school registration, a will and testament, a death certificate that established automatic transfer of ownership, medical records, a charitable donation receipt, or any other documentation, certification, identification, or proof of occupancy or ownership not included on this list that can reasonably link the individual requesting assistance to the applicable property
  • Require FEMA to create a declarative statement form, which would allow a disaster relief applicant to self-certify eligibility for assistance
  • Allow individuals who have previously been denied assistance due to restrictive proof-of-ownership requirements to reopen cases and use new, expanded documentation to become eligible for assistance (applies to disasters declared after January 1, 2017).
  • Allow disaster relief funds to be used for repairs, not just rebuilding homes that have been rendered completely uninhabitable
  • Require FEMA and HUD to engage in consultations regarding the implementation of a DHAP, or a similar joint program, within 60 days of a disaster declaration.

“Our measure enables families to start recovering from natural disasters by helping them put a roof over their heads,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal. “Wrongful federal assistance denials and burdensome administrative requirements have previously prevented disaster survivors from accessing necessary housing aid and other assistance. The Housing Survivors of Major Disasters Act will help streamline these requirements and get faster relief to those who need it after a natural disaster tragically upends their lives.”

“Natural disasters are an inevitability that must be addressed, especially in light of the damage already inflicted by Hurricanes Fiona and Ian. Severe hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters force Americans to grapple with unexpected difficulties like displacement and property damage,” said Senator Dick Durbin. “The Housing Survivors of Major Natural Disasters Act of 2022 will help families impacted by natural disasters by making it easier to prove residence and ownership of property, and improve accessibility of housing aid.”

“The Housing Survivors of Major Disasters Act provides a much-needed safety net for families who have been impacted by disasters that are beyond their control,”  said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. “Losing their homes due to a natural disaster such as Hurricane Fiona or Hurricane Ian, or a catastrophe such as the west coast wildfires, leaves families devastated with uncertainty, forcing them to rebuild and start from scratch. The Housing Survivors of Major Disasters Act gives victims a key building block, via housing assistance, to restart their lives after facing such a dire situation.”

“The federal government must do more to ensure families displaced by natural disasters are assisted in their search for safe and affordable housing, just as we must do more to combat the climate crisis and prevent these disasters from becoming even more frequent and intense,” said Senator Ed Markey. 

“When severe weather events wreak havoc on our communities, our priority should be getting them the help they need as quickly as possible. Survivors of natural disasters shouldn’t have to worry about combing through bureaucratic red tape to receive housing assistance – it should be ready and available for them. This legislation will help ensure just that,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen. 

“As we know, Puerto Rico has not yet recovered from Hurricane Maria, and is again suffering widespread destruction from Hurricane Fiona.  The Housing Survivors of Major Disasters Act will help thousands of fellow Puerto Ricans, who were not able to apply for FEMA assistance, access disaster relief immediately by making it easier for them to show proof of ownership and residency.  This assistance will finally help these families recover everything they have lost after these major natural disasters,” said Vanessa Calderón-Rosado, Ph.D., Chief Executive Officer, IBA-Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción.

"Survivors of major natural disasters need FEMA assistance, not unnecessary paperwork hurdles to navigate during their time of need.  As natural disasters like Hurricane Ian become more frequent and more damaging, we must not delay in passing the Housing Survivors of Major Disasters Act," said Caroline Nagy, senior policy counsel for housing, corporate power, and climate justice at Americans for Financial Reform. 

"Disasters are increasing in frequency and severity, just as inequality and our nation’s housing crisis grows. The lowest-income people and communities are consistently the hardest hit by disasters - without focused action, they are often left behind in its recovery and rebuilding,” said Diane Yentel, President and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “Senator Warren and Congressman Espaillat’s important legislation would begin to address the legacy of a failed response to Hurricane Maria, activate needed and proven housing solutions, and authorize reforms to help ensure that the lowest-income and most marginalized survivors of all disasters receive the housing assistance they need to rebuild their lives. NLIHC and our Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition urge Congress to quickly advance this bill.”

This legislation is endorsed by: the National Low Income Housing Coalition, UnidosUS, Hispanic Federation, Americans for Financial Reform, United Way of Central Massachusetts, Seven Hills Foundation, and Inquilinos Boricuas en Accion.