Disaster Discourse: The Hagerty Blog

Post-Disaster FEMA Housing Assistance: A Review of Key Policy Changes

States, territorial, and tribal governments take notice: on June 1st, new rules take effect for how to request a federal disaster declaration for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Individual Assistance (IA).

The declaration process for IA has long been ambiguous compared to the process for Public Assistance (PA). Under PA, the declaration process is largely driven by a simple metric: the amount of damage that is eligible for PA assistance relative to the state’s population. In sharp contrast, the IA declaration process has been more subjective, lacking a straightforward metric that drives the determination.

The Sandy Recovery and Improvement Act of 2013 (SRIA) sought to address some of the ambiguity around IA declarations by requiring FEMA to review, update and revise the factors that FEMA uses to determine whether to recommend an IA declaration. FEMA recently published its final rule detailing the factors and subfactors that it will use for evaluating IA declaration requests.

The new rule, effective June 1, 2019, succeeds in clarifying the specific information and data sources that FEMA will use in evaluating IA declaration requests. However, it stops short of providing a specific formula or threshold like what is used for PA declarations. In other words, while there is more clarity on the specific data points and data sources that FEMA will utilize, there is still no clear threshold for an IA declaration. Thus the new rule may reduce the back and forth between FEMA and states, but the threshold for an IA declaration remains unclear.

There are additional implications for this new rule. For example, FEMA includes a new factor, state fiscal capacity and resource availability, that could place larger states at a relative disadvantage when seeking an IA declaration. Let’s unpack the new factors and discuss the implications of each.

Figure: The chart on the left depicts the former factors used by FEMA to evaluate IA declaration requests, and the chart on the right depicts the new factors that FEMA will use, effective June 1, 2019.

State Fiscal Capacity and Resource Availability. This new factor is intended to more directly measure whether the impact of a disaster exceeds the fiscal capacity of a state. FEMA is relying on three data points to serve as sub-factors for this first factor:  (1) Total Taxable Resources (TTR) of the state, (2) Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and (3) per capita personal income by local area. It is notable that FEMA is not looking at actual tax revenue by the state but rather the state’s tax base. Per capita personal income provides a limited measure of household resources in the impacted area. Per capita personal income by local area would also likely correlate with local government capacity. One potential criticism of this factor is that large states such a California and New York have larger fiscal capacity but also larger operating expenses due to the size of their population. This factor does not incorporate any adjustment for population size, leaving open the possibility that large states will have a structural disadvantage in seeking IA declarations.

Uninsured Home and Personal Property Losses. Uninsured households are highly vulnerable and often rely upon assistance under IA programs for their recovery. Subfactors for this item include (1) the cause of damage, (2) the jurisdictions impacted and concentration of damage, (3) the number of homes impacted and degree of damage, (4) estimated cost of assistance, (5) homeownership rate of impacted homes, (6) percentage of affected households with sufficient insurance coverage appropriate to the peril, and (7) other relevant preliminary damage assessment data.

Disaster Impacted Population Profile. This factor addresses social vulnerability. Specific subfactors include (1) percentage of the population for whom poverty status is determined, (2) percentage of population receiving government assistance, (3) pre-disaster unemployment rate, (4) percentage of population that is 65 years old and older, (5) percentage of population that is 18 years old and younger, (6) percentage of population with a disability, (7) percentage of population who speak a language other than English and speak English less than “very well,” and (8) any unique considerations regarding American Indian and Alaskan Native Tribal populations.

Impact to Community Infrastructure. This factor is distinct from PA and addresses life safety and essential services that allow residents to safely and securely reside in their community. Subfactors include (1) lifesaving and life-sustaining services, (2) essential community services, and (3) transportation infrastructure and utilities.

Casualties. This factor includes the number of individuals who are missing, injured or deceased.

Disaster Related Unemployment. This factor includes the number of disaster survivors who lost work or became unemployed due to the disaster and do not qualify for standard unemployment insurance.

The new rule for IA declarations should clarify the information required for declaration requests, but the threshold for an IA declaration remains ambiguous. Some level of ambiguity is likely necessary to provide FEMA with flexibility to consider unique circumstances that will arise with some disasters. Emergency managers will want to carefully monitor how this new rule is implemented, particularly with regard to IA declarations for the most populous states.

James Ariail is the Director of Disaster Housing Services for Hagerty Consulting, Inc. (Hagerty). James has more than 18 years of experience in emergency management, with a focus on recovery and mitigation programs. James has supported clients through all phases of disaster housing, from emergency sheltering through interim housing and Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program implementation. He lives in the Washington, D.C. area with his three children.