The House Republican Budget Would Eliminate Critical Disaster Relief Funding

A house rests on the beach after collapsing off a cliff from Hurricane Irma in Vilano Beach, Florida, September 15, 2017.

Families in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are beginning the hard work of rebuilding their lives in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. House Republicans, however, are proposing to eliminate some of the critical tools people will need.

When a natural disaster hits, affected communities rely on federal resources to rebuild homes, schools, and highways. But the proposed fiscal year 2018 House majority budget eliminates programs that provide disaster relief and the administrative resources needed to deploy funding quickly and effectively. If implemented, the budget will eliminate the Community Development Block Grant program, the office within the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that administers relief funds; eliminate the Legal Services Corporation, which provides free legal services to affected families; and eliminate AmeriCorps, which sends volunteers to help with disaster cleanup.

HUD community development funds rebuild communities

As a program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program provides states and local governments with the flexible funds they need to build resilient communities. CDBG funds can be used for affordable housing, child care centers, or even storm preparedness. After a natural disaster, Congress appropriates funds for disaster relief through the CDBG program. These funds, called CDBG Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds, are the primary source of federal funding to rebuild a community after a hurricane or other disaster.

On September 7, Congress sent $7.4 billion in CDBG-DR funds to communities hit by natural disasters this year. If the House majority and President Donald Trump had their way, however, the federal government would not have the resources to deploy these funds properly. Dispensing billions of dollars efficiently requires staff and expertise. If the CDBG program is eliminated, the Department of Housing and Urban Development will not have staff in place to get federal relief dollars out the door when they are needed.

Free legal services help save homes after storms

The Legal Services Corporation makes it possible for low-income families to get free legal services. It funds 134 legal services providers across the country and, during times of crisis, provides emergency relief grants to legal services organizations so that they can serve more families in areas affected by natural disasters. In 2015, the Legal Services Corporation funded providers that served 137,186 people in Texas, 90,248 people in Florida, 72,708 people in Puerto Rico, and 1,665 people in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

After a disaster, families are often financially vulnerable and in great need of legal assistance. Lawyers help homeowners negotiate with mortgage companies to prevent foreclosures, clear title issues that can prevent homeowners from qualifying for relief aid, and access owed insurance claims. Lawyers compel landlords to make rental units habitable and safe for renters, and in the worst cases, they help renters break a lease so that they can move to a safer home.

The Legal Services Corporation also funds an online resource called DisasterLegalAid.org designed to help families access resources after a disaster and to recruit pro bono attorneys who can help. Maintained by Lone Star Legal Aid in Texas, DisasterLegalAid.org is currently serving families recovering from disasters and their pro bono attorneys.

Without the infrastructure that the Legal Services Corporation has built and maintains, and the emergency funds it sends to places in need, millions of families would be without a trusted legal adviser to help them navigate a costly disaster.

AmeriCorps members serve on the front lines of disaster recovery

In the aftermath of a natural disaster, AmeriCorps members are often on the front lines of recovery efforts. As of September 6, nearly 550 AmeriCorps members had been deployed to Texas after Hurricane Harvey to work in shelters and to help the Federal Emergency Management Agency with logistics and assistance, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service.

AmeriCorps, a national service program started in 1993 has played a core role in disaster recovery since its creation. In the decade following Hurricane Katrina, the Corporation for National and Community Service estimates that more than 39,169 AmeriCorps and Senior Corps members helped those affected by the storm in Louisiana and Mississippi. During the past 10 years, the members constructed 1,615 houses, refurbished an additional 13,782 houses, and removed 17,335 tons of debris and trash from the states.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, more than 3,800 AmeriCorps members helped clear more than 3,700 homes and mobilized more than 30,000 other volunteers.

Conclusion

As natural disasters become painfully routine due to climate change, it is more important than ever that the federal government is prepared to be a strong partner during the aftermath of a storm. But the House majority’s budget would dismantle the federal government’s capacity to deliver disaster relief. And after Congress relied on the CDBG program for Hurricane Harvey relief, it would be a brazen flip-flop for policymakers to vote for a budget that eliminates the program.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) promised the people affected by Hurricane Harvey that “the House will be with them every step of the way.” For that to be true, the House majority will need to take its budget back to the drawing board. 

Sarah Edelman is the director of Housing Policy at the Center for American Progress. Harry Stein is the director of Fiscal Policy at the Center.

The authors would like to thank Galen Hendricks, an intern with the Economic Policy team at the Center, for his research assistance.