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From the Desk of Ryan Sherriff: When Weather Hits Home

When a natural disaster strikes, it takes a toll on every household in the affected area regardless of income, race, ethnicity and other socioeconomic characteristics. But, in terms of the degree to which each household is affected, lower income families are disproportionately impacted.

Mainly, this is because lower income households tend to live in more vulnerable areas –like floodplains – where land is often cheaper, and in turn the housing is in turn more affordable. Also, the low-cost housing these families tend to live in is often lower quality, making it more vulnerable to hurricanes, tornadoes, heavy rains and floods.
Additionally, lower income families have less financial and social resources to prepare for disasters and respond to them when they strike.

For developers and builders, disaster-resistant construction and rehab adds cost, increasing rental rates and price points, and compromising affordability for lower income households. Although there are many public sector programs that can provide subsidy or low-cost financing to make homes more affordable for these households, there are few programs that can defray the added cost of disaster-resistant construction, rehab or home improvements.

There are many funding sources for financing disaster-resistant homes. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides the bulk of funding for disaster mitigation, mostly through its Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant and Hazard Mitigation Grant programs. The issue is that grantees can’t use these funds to target specific income groups. So the grants can’t be used to provide the additional resources needed to help provide affordable, disaster-resistant housing for lower income households.

A few states have created programs to target such families. One example is South Carolina’s SC Safe Home Program. This program provides one-for-one grants of up to $5,000 to those owning homes with insured values of $300,000 or less. For low- and moderate- income households – those earning below 80% of the area median income – the one-for-one match is waived. Programs like SC Safe Home are great resources for providing disaster mitigation resources to lower income families…but such programs are few and far between.

My Safe Florida Home is the only other program of its kind, and funding for the program expired in June of 2009 due to budget constraints.

Even these state programs – like most FEMA programs – focus on single-family homes and don’t fund disaster-resistant construction and retrofits for multifamily properties, where lower income families are likely to rent. To address this limitation, Congressman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi proposed two bills last year that would help provide the needed resources to lower income households living in single-family and multifamily homes. The Pre-Disaster Hazard Mitigation Program Enhancement Act of 2009 (H.R. 3027) and the Hazard Mitigation for All Act of 2009 (H.R. 3026) would enable both FEMA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to provide grants to communities strictly for helping lower income families protect their homes from natural disasters.

Congress is currently considering the two bills. Their passage would provide much needed funding for affected lower income populations and address the current limitations of federal programs in proactively helping vulnerable households prepare for the next disaster.

For more information on disaster relief housing please contact Ryan Sherriff, Center’s research associate.

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