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U.S. Senators Menendez, Booker reintroduce legislation to help survivors of natural disasters

NEW JERSEY – U.S. Senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker (both D-N.J.) joined several of their colleagues in reintroducing the Housing Survivors of Major Disasters Act, which would help communities affected by major natural disasters access housing assistance.

“The last thing survivors of natural disasters need is to deal with federal bureaucracy and red tape,” Menendez said. “This bill would allow sufficient flexibilities to ensure the government helps struggling families after major disasters find safe and affordable housing.”

“As natural disasters become more prevalent, it is crucial that families impacted by disasters receive a quick response from the federal government when they need it the most,” Booker said. “That is why I am proud to support this legislation that would strengthen protections by ensuring communities displaced by natural disasters have access to safe and affordable housing.”

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 communities where alternative property ownership methods are prevalent, such as in Puerto Rico, disaster survivors can be prevented from accessing aid because of rigid documentation requirements.

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.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Ed 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.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) are also cosponsoring the legislation. Congressman Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.-13) introduced legislation in the House.

This legislation is supported 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.

Jay Edwards

Born and raised in Northwest NJ, Jay has a degree in Communications and has had a life-long interest in local radio and various styles of music. Jay has held numerous jobs over the years such as stunt car driver, bartender, voice-over artist, traffic reporter (award winning), NY Yankee maintenance crewmember and peanut farm worker. His hobbies include mountain climbing, snowmobiling, cooking, performing stand-up comedy and he is an avid squirrel watcher. Jay has been a guest on America’s Morning Headquarters,program on The Weather Channel, and was interviewed by Sam Champion.

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