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Friday, September 30, 2022

GAO: Better Cost Data and Guidance Would Aid FEMA Activation Decisions on Disaster Housing

The 2017 and 2018 hurricanes (Harvey, Irma, Maria, Florence, and Michael) caused $325 billion of damage to  approximately 746,000 homes. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided post-disaster assistance, including rental and direct housing assistance. 

FEMA has a number of direct housing or rental assistance programs that it can activate to meet the housing needs of disaster survivors. To determine which program or programs to activate, FEMA considers various factors, such as cost-effectiveness.

But a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says FEMA doesn’t have enough information on program cost-effectiveness because it doesn’t collect data in a way that allows it to analyze the full costs of providing assistance.

GAO found that FEMA relied primarily on rental assistance payments to assist 2017 and 2018 hurricane survivors but also used direct housing programs to address housing needs. The review found that FEMA provided rental assistance to about 746,000 households and direct housing assistance to about 5,400 households. FEMA did not use the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP)—a pilot grant program managed jointly with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—because FEMA viewed its direct housing programs to be more efficient and cost-effective and did not consider DHAP to be a standard post-disaster housing assistance program.

FEMA has also indicated on its website that it did not activate DHAP in response to Hurricane Maria based on its interpretation that a 2011 DHS Office of Inspector General report concluded that DHAP was neither efficient nor cost-effective.

FEMA and HUD created DHAP through an interagency agreement in 2007 to augment ongoing disaster assistance efforts in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (2005). The DHAP pilot subsequently was used for Hurricanes Ike and Gustav in 2008 and Hurricane Sandy in 2013. In addition to providing rental assistance for survivors, DHAP was intended to promote self-sufficiency through mandatory case management and a requirement for families to incrementally increase their contributions to their monthly rent.

FEMA told GAO that it determined that the Direct Lease Assistance and Multi-Family Lease and Repair Program were the most cost-effective forms of direct housing support based on historical data. However, officials acknowledged that the Multi-Family Lease and Repair program in particular had not been widely used since its creation and that available cost information for the program is therefore limited.

GAO added that FEMA’s analyses of the cost-effectiveness of housing assistance programs were limited because program cost data were incomplete or not readily usable. In particular, the watchdog found that FEMA does not collect key program data in its system, such as monthly subsidy and administrative costs, in a manner that would allow it to analyze the full costs of providing the assistance. 

FEMA policy guidance also states that FEMA is to compare the projected costs of the direct housing programs it is considering activating, but does not consistently specify what cost information to consider, such as whether to use both programmatic and administrative costs. Without such guidance, GAO says FEMA cannot reasonably assure that its assessments and their results incorporate consistent and comparable data.

In its December 15 report, GAO makes two recommendations to FEMA for its temporary housing programs: First, identify and make changes to its data systems to allow for capture and analysis of programs’ full costs. Second, specify the information needed to compare projected program costs in its guidance on activating programs.

The Department of Homeland Security has agreed with both recommendations, and plans to implement them in 2021–2022. FEMA plans to identify requirements needed to meet the first recommendation and identify a system for
implementation by September 2021, and to implement the new system by September 30, 2022. DHS added that FEMA will complete work to meet the second recommendation by September 30, 2021, after developing and finalizing internal job aids and templates as needed.

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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