Hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and other acts of God leave thousands of people stranded every year, after their homes are destroyed. It’s estimated that Hurricane Harvey left as many as 30,000 displaced, Hurricane Maria displaced 50,000, and Katrina 600,000. Many of the displaced tend to be extremely low-income, people who have consistently been excluded from government programs. That often leaves them with little choice but to sleep in uninhabitable homes, crowded shelters, or even become homeless.
The Crisis Housing Act Program (CHAP), a new bill introduced this week by Senators Brian Schatz, of Hawaii, and Chris Van Hollen, of Maryland, aims to put an end to the cycle of ineligibility and inaction by allowing the dispersal of emergency funds to be automatically triggered after major disasters. That would eliminate congressional stalling every time there’s a catastrophe, and also ensure the poorest qualify for financial assistance.
“When disaster strikes, families shouldn’t be left without a home or stuck in limbo waiting for Congress to pass a disaster relief bill,” Senator Schatz said in a press release. “Too many people in our country are housing insecure, and this is a good first step to building a safety net to support them.”
When disasters hit, poorer people have to wait for weeks or months for Congress to enact federal funding so they can access aid. After 2018’s Hurricane Michael, the first Category 5 hurricane to hit the mainland U.S. in 26 years, Congress took eight months to approve funding. While CHAP would have to initially pass in Congress, it would then permanently allow the automatic authorization of resources in the event of a major disaster, without the need for congressional approval—making funds ready and available for the most in need.
“Having some sort of automatic trigger is better, because it means that resources for individuals aren’t tied up into politics,” says Sarah Saadian, vice president of public policy for the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), which supported the bill and provided counsel for the two senators. The group has been advocating for improved federal policy “to make sure that the lowest income and most marginalized disaster survivors have adequate housing.” Last year, after the Californian wildfires and Hurricanes Harvey and Maria, the group started a disaster housing recovery coalition, with 850 partner organizations, to help reach that goal.
CHAP would work on the basis of Section 8 vouchers, the program that helps very low-income families to afford housing. When something happens that counts as a trigger—a major natural disaster on a state or county level—those vouchers, which amount to about $10,000 a year, would automatically become available for very low-income people. After a disaster, eligible families—those earning incomes up to 80% of the area’s median—would be able to go to their local public housing agency and apply to receive the rental aid. According to the bill’s text, the assistance would be available within a month of the trigger and remain on offer for two years, with the possibility of being extended for an additional year.
Congress aside, the other structural problem is FEMA, whose aid the bill’s one-pager calls “slow and unreliable.” The agency’s emergency resources are chiefly targeted at the middle class. FEMA assumes survivors have savings; its temporary accommodation program usually relocates people to hotels or motels that charge security deposits or resort fees, which under- or unbanked folks struggle to afford. It also assumes the people it helps have a certain level of education and English proficiency, as well as the physical capability to relocate, which freezes out the less educated, immigrants, and disabled people. And it often denies assistance to those who were already homeless pre-catastrophe.
“I think of this bill as being a refresh [to] avoid some of the challenges with the FEMA rental assistance programs,” Saadian says. The new bill would make HUD, not FEMA, the controlling authority for implementing resources. A previous iteration of funding, the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP), was controlled by HUD, but FEMA had to activate it every time Congress approved funding—and under Trump, the agency has refused to activate it for the hurricanes and wildfires that have taken place during his presidency. CHAP would simply avoid that problem with its automatic activation.
While Saadian says the main aim of this bill is to focus on disaster relief, it also has a second trigger—for unemployment. Specifically, resources would be triggered by a 0.5% increase in the six-month average of a state’s unemployment rate, relative to its low during the previous year (a metric known as the Sahm Rule, named for economist Claudia Sahm). That arm of the bill was influenced by the COVID-19 economic crisis, as unemployment has greatly exacerbated people’s inability to pay rent, and there’s currently a bipartisan bill under discussion that would extend the eviction moratorium for another month and set aside $25 billion for rent relief.
But rent payment has been a problem for a long time: Even before the pandemic, 15% of U.S. households spent more than 50% of their income on rent. “We really want Congress to shift its focus to be thinking about systemic, long-term solutions that really get at the heart of these issues,” Saadian says. Those measures would build a stronger safety net for future disasters and emergencies. In the long run, the bill would also be more resourceful, Saadian says, in preventing homelessness’s costly problems, like shelter, healthcare, and foster care. “It’s pretty inexpensive, in the scheme of things.”