By David Rammler
Losses and costs of recovery from 2017 hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and wildfires in California have been estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars. As recovery efforts continue to take shape, fair housing advocates should heed the lessons of Superstorm Sandy and the New Jersey rebuilding process.
The disaster recovery process in New Jersey was hampered from the beginning by both repeated administrative failures and a systemic lack of interest in rebuilding in ways that were fair to working families, immigrant communities and communities of color. The state’s original plan almost completely ignored these deficiencies and, additionally, diverted substantial federal funding to projects in politically connected communities that had seen almost no impact from Sandy. When attempts to work with state officials to remedy these serious problems fell on deaf ears, the Latino Action Network of New Jersey, the New Jersey NAACP and the Fair Share Housing Center of New Jersey filed a civil rights complaint against the state. A mediation process concluded 14 months later with a landmark agreement, the largest settlement in the history of the federal Fair Housing Act.
As part of the settlement, Gov. Chris Christie’s administration committed to addressing severe problems in its disaster recovery plan that threatened to leave thousands of renters and homeowners behind. The State of New Jersey allocated about a half a billion dollars more than initially planned to develop affordable, multifamily housing in communities that were most impacted by the storm along the Jersey Shore and other storm-impacted communities. These rental homes disproportionately served people of color and lower-income people and the lack of initial rental funding in the rebuilding plan threatened to displace renters from both higher-opportunity suburban communities and gentrifying urban neighborhoods. The agreement also led to the creation of a program specifically designed to assist low- and moderate-income homeowners seeking to rebuild, after HUD found that the initial program serving homeowners had not sufficiently been marketed in areas with significant concentrations of homeowners of color.
At the same time, the settlement sought to reform a litany of failed practices by the state and its contractors that threatened to leave thousands of New Jersey families without recovery support. For example, serious problems had impacted residents of limited English proficiency, particularly Latino communities with many Spanish and Portuguese speakers. At one point, the state’s Spanish-language website listed inaccurate application deadlines for state programs. As a result of the settlement, the state pledged to spend millions of dollars in culturally and linguistically appropriate outreach to communities of color and immigrant communities to ensure that eligible families knew about state assistance programs. Additionally, confronted by a series of state contractors who had systematically failed to properly process disaster assistance applications, and had improperly denied eligible homeowners, the settlement forced the state to re-review all denied applications and provide residents with opportunities to appeal decisions.
Despite the progress made as a result of this settlement, the road to recovery continues to be rocky for too many New Jersey families. There are still thousands of New Jersey families five years later who are not finished rebuilding. Many of the recovery programs aimed at working families and communities of color didn’t get off the ground until after the settlement was in place—years after the storm hit. While there have been areas of improvement, one of the lessons from Sandy is that when programs are initially not designed correctly, the impacts reverberate for years, especially for lower-income people who cannot afford to wait.
Yet advocates seeking to ensure equitable rebuilding in areas hit hard by this year’s hurricane season are in a better position because of the work we did after Sandy. Our settlement agreement with the state helped shape important federal guidance under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act issued in 2016 by the Department of Justice and all major agencies involved in disaster recovery that confirmed disaster recovery programs must follow federal civil rights laws. The guidance called on states, counties and municipalities to proactively plan to respond to the needs of low-income communities, immigrant families and communities of color and instructed federal agencies to ensure equitable rebuilding opportunities that respect victims’ civil rights.
Even with this meaningful federal guidance, substantial additional reforms of federal disaster recovery programs remain needed. On the federal level, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development should provide better training to disaster personnel on the particular problems posed by storm-damaged manufactured homes. Even relatively minor water damage could cause total loss of the structures. In addition, FEMA must improve management of private insurance companies that process flood claims to ensure that people receive the benefits for which they are eligible. Too many families’ claims in New Jersey were improperly rejected or underpaid—and there remains no clear and speedy appeal process to address these problems.
On the local front, the processes for accepting and processing impacted resident’s assistance applications must be easily understood, contain safeguards to protect information, allow residents to track their application processing, and guide them through an unwieldy alphabet soup of aid programs and offices that can confound ordinary families. Poorly designed procedures—and an over-reliance on contractors with poor track records of responding to other disasters—divert resources that could be used to help families and significantly prolong the rebuilding process.
While disaster recovery will involve the hiring of many contractors, advocates should take care to ensure that federal Section 3 diversity targets are met or exceeded and that local minority- and women-owned businesses have a fair shot at bidding for work against out-of-state outfits that swoop in and seek work following a disaster. Because mistakes will occur, it’s imperative that all disaster relief applicants know about, and have access to, quick and simple appeal processes and that all aid request denials are explained to families in clear, simple language they will be able to understand. Also key to any effective response from the advocacy community is access to current disaster recovery data. Advocates should press state, local and federal officials for accurate and timely data on recovery to track progress and quickly identify trouble spots.
Finally, if local officials are preparing to implement inequitable recovery plans, advocates must be prepared to move quickly to protect the civil rights of impacted communities. It is imperative that advocates work quickly to insert themselves into the process so that the voices of low-income communities and families of color are listened to and included in any final disaster recovery plan. This involvement is especially critical for the longerterm recovery programs using Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds administered by HUD. Federal, state and local governments face pressure to quickly initiate recovery programs, but, if the programs are flawed from the beginning, valuable time is lost and unnecessary suffering occurs in the many months it will undoubtedly take to correct problems and to resolve a civil rights complaint.
Time is of the essence in the weeks and months following a major hurricane. Advocates should be armed with an understanding of how federal dollars are allocated to impacted communities and the lessons of Superstorm Sandy, and be prepared to utilize new tools, particularly the 2016 civil rights guidance, to win a seat at the table and ensure that any final recovery plan focuses on the needs of low-income residents and communities of color.