Houston, Texas - September 19, 2017: FEMA banner out the State of Texas/FEMA Disaster Recovery Center at the Bayland Community Center (Harris County) staffed with recovery specialists from FEMA,SBA, and State agencies

FEMA Proposes Rule Change that is a Step Toward Equity and Improving Access

On January 22, FEMA released an Interim Final Rule that proposes significant modifications to their Individual Assistance (IA) Program that provides financial assistance and direct services to eligible individuals and households affected by presidentially declared disasters. This change means that disaster survivors will have greater accessibility and more benefits to FEMA assistance.

For so long, research, policy analysis and on the ground advocacy have shown that FEMA’s Individual Assistance Program consistently underserved renters, low-income households, and people of color. These populations are most impacted by disasters and FEMA’s uneven assistance has exacerbated inequities. FEMA’s interim rule has the potential to eliminate some of these barriers and inequities.

Broad Highlights

Overall, the new rules simplify the application process, increase eligibility and access to assistance, and adds new benefits

  • Simplifies the application process.
    • FEMA will now accept late applications submitted within 30 days of the expiration of the disaster assistance application period.
    • FEMA will simplify additional application requirements for continued housing assistance
    • FEMA will simplify the appeal process by removing a requirement to write a formal letter
  • Removes eligibility barriers.
    • FEMA plans to remove the prerequisite to apply to Small Business Administration Disaster Home Loan program
    • FEMA will no longer count t insurance payments against FEMA assistance caps
    • FEMA has expanded its definition of eligible damage to include any issue that prevents a home from being habitable, regardless of whether it was disaster caused or not
  • Creates new programs and extends benefits.
    • Creates the Serious Needs Assistance which will provide $750 of direct assistance to cover evacuation and emergency expenses
    • Creates the Displacement Assistance program which will provide up-front funds for immediate and short-term living arrangements, such as costs associated with staying with family and friends
    • FEMA expanded eligibility for funding accessibility measures

Biggest Equity Potential – addressing pre-existing conditions

Although none of the new changes specifically and directly prioritize low-income households and people of color, some of the rules are especially important for frontline communities. Specifically, the change in the definition of “uninhabitable” allows FEMA to address pre-existing damage not directly caused by the disaster, which is a significant paradigm shift for the agency. The image below shows how this definition was modified.

Adapted from the National Low Income Household Coalition Webinar on 1/30/24

Historically, FEMA programs were created to only repair direct disaster damage, so if the disaster destroyed part of the roof but FEMA inspectors believed the roof would not have been damaged had the roof been maintained, then the damage was not determined to be due to the disaster and it would not qualify for assistance. In practice, that old rule disproportionately impacted low-income households, people of color, and renters who could not afford to or did not have control over maintaining the property they lived in. Unfortunately, this resulted in low-income, people of color, and renters having higher denial rates because of deferred maintenance. Advocates need to ensure that FEMA implements this rule in a way that most benefits these populations that have been historically marginalized in disaster recovery.

Another important change expands coverage for accessibility-related items (such as ramps, grab bars, and paved pathways). This new change allows applicants to make their homes more accessible than they were pre-disaster even in areas of the home not directly damaged by the disaster. This is another paradigm shift as historically FEMA did not provide assistance for any improvements, even for accessibility unless they were already installed pre-disaster and damaged by the disaster. FEMA made some progress on this front, when they changed its policy in 2021 to provide capital improvements around accessibility measures (even if it was not there pre-disaster) so long as it was needed due to the individual gaining a disaster-related disability.   

What significant barriers remain

As mentioned earlier, none of the new changes specifically or directly targets low-income households, communities of color, or renters for specific benefits. However, these frontline communities have faced disproportionate impacts from disasters and have been historically marginalized from FEMA assistance. Five particular areas need further attention, which will be briefly listed here, but stay tuned for a deeper analysis.

  1. Develop specific benefits to low-income, communities of color, renters
  2. Substantially increase language access capacity in multiple languages
  3. Modifies processes and practices that are better suited for state territories
  4. Develop processes and practices that is in alignment with tribal nations’ sovereignty
  5. Reduce reliance on property value for determining the amount of eligible assistance

Next Steps

The changes proposed in this interim final rule will take effect on March 22. FEMA is collecting public comment on this rule for 180 days until July 22nd. There are three reasons for why it is crucial for advocates to submit public comments during this time.

  • To inform implementation: The proposed rules will significantly increase the cost of FEMA’s operations and they are still an understaffed agency. It is important that implementation does not cut corners that would reduce the benefits to low-income, people of color, renters, and other frontline communities. There are so many changes, especially with the new definition of “uninhabitable” that would require large overhauls of current training and procedural practices and changes should be informed by advocates.
  • To set the agenda for future regulatory or policy changes: The proposed benefits increase accessibility and eligibility broadly, but still do not specifically or directly prioritize low-income households, communities of color, or renters. These populations have been historically marginalized in the disaster recovery process and there is still a significant need for targeted benefits. Providing policy solutions for these specific populations is paramount, which can be highlighted in the comments.
  • To share new changes with future disaster survivors: New rules such as the extension on submitting an application past the due date can be of benefit only if community members are aware of these changes! With the lack of FEMA engagement staff and their limitation on language access, many frontline communities may be unaware of the changes without CBOs education and advocacy efforts. Commenting on new rules is one effective way to become aware of such changes and voice remaining needs, especially with regard to their implementation to make sure frontline communities benefit from these changes

Just Solutions will monitor the implementation of the new policies and strengthen their application to help ensure equitable access to disaster recovery and resilience for frontline communities.