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Disaster Recovery Agents Push to Codify HUD Recovery Grant Program

April 27, 2021 by Kate Michael

WASHINGTON — First used in 1993, HUD’s Community Development Block Grant Recovery Program enhances the agency’s already flexible grants that help cities, counties, and states recover from presidentially declared disasters. These special recovery grants supplement disaster programs of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Small Business Administration, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers bringing crucial seed money to jump-start activities in affected areas that may not rebuild easily on their own.

The CDBG-DR has awarded $90 billion in long-term disaster recovery funding since its inception, with $40 billion granted in the last four years alone, as disasters are increasing in frequency and severity.

But while this critical funding, which comes from supplemental appropriations, continues to be used for a variety of disasters, the agency has not formally codified the program, and analysts worry that its dollars are not flowing to those communities in crisis quickly and fairly enough or making enough of an impact.

The Bipartisan Policy Center convened leaders managing CDBG-DR grants and disaster recoveries in four of the largest states in the country — Texas, Florida, California, and New York — to find out more about how the program could be amended or altered to address potential unmet needs. 

“CDBG is going to be a critical part of disaster recovery for any state,” said Maziar Movassaghi, chief disaster recovery officer at the California Department of Housing and Community Development. On the one hand, he appreciates CDBG-DR’s flexibility. But this increasingly important source of funding for disasters isn’t quick or easy to obtain, with “backend administrative work that entangles states” and sometimes holds up communities’ needed funds until years after the disaster.

“Flexibility in funding is tremendously important,” agreed Amy Peterson, director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery. “It’s important to remember there are all different types of disasters this funding is used for,” she said citing specifically housing recovery and workforce development aid for disasters like fires; earthquakes; hurricanes such as Sandy, which hit New York in 2012; and even rebuilding and recovery efforts after terrorist acts as in Manhattan after 9/11. 

“But there’s a way to keep the flexibility and make the process move faster,” Peterson said. She insisted that the program’s inefficiencies stem from process, and if the goal is to get funds into the hands of disaster survivors more quickly, there are some steps Congress could take to make it happen. 

“We appreciate the funds, of course, we just want to speed it up,” echoed Dane Eagle, executive director of Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity. “We’re still administering funds dating back to 2016… It does no good sitting in government coffers. It needs to be in the communities affecting the people.” 

While Eagle doesn’t blame anyone in office specifically, he does claim the issue is the “bureaucratic jungle,” and that a change in Federal Register noticing could be a simple first step to correcting some inefficiencies.

“The number one thing is the Federal Registry and the time it takes to begin working on the State Action Plan,” Eagle said. HUD issues multiple requirements and waivers for each Disaster Recovery supplemental appropriation in Federal Register notices. The use of multiple Federal Register notices to operate the Disaster Recovery program causes challenges to grantees who have to follow requirements contained in a volume of separate notices to manage their programs. “And each Register is not always synced with other ones that pop up,” Eagle said.

“The problem is when drafting requirements… it shouldn’t take this long to develop boilerplate [language] from disaster to disaster,” suggested George P. Bush, commissioner of the Texas General Land Office. “When the wordsmiths are putting their heads together in Congress… [they should] consider a time cap or boilerplate… [with] flexibility to amend the State Plan.” 

This could reduce the existing number of Federal Register notices, standardize the rules for all grantees, and ensure that grants are closed in a timely manner. 

“Every disaster, we build on what the group before us has done,” said Peterson. “It doesn’t feel like we should be reinventing the wheel every time we start this… I feel very strongly that there are immediate on-the-ground programs that are in place [and should be used].” To that end, she recommends understanding how these programs are connected, solidifying data collection, and codifying CDBG-DR so that grantees don’t have to go through the federal notice process and to ensure that a permanent framework is in place for future disasters.

“We should have some off-the-shelf type of products that can be immediately available,” Peterson said, “and still maintain some flexibility where we need it.”

Bush agrees that “if codified, I hope the flexibility will be maintained to target appropriately, rather than a top-down driven approach…. Bureaucracy is what’s hurting us and we’re working on reducing steps there now… but an information-sharing agreement would [also] be a quantum leap.”

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