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New FEMA program would place homeless disaster survivors in apartments instead of trailer parks

Facing eviction, Mike Erickson moves out of his trailer in a FEMA-run trailer park in Chico, Calif. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Amid criticism of its ability to act as landlord to the growing numbers of Americans losing their homes to wildfires, storms and other natural disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is revising how it provides transitional housing for those most in need of government help.

The current options, which often rely on moving families into FEMA-run trailer parks, would be supplemented by a new program offering subsidized apartments and extensive case management to help disaster survivors find a permanent place to live, something social service workers and housing advocates say has been lacking.

The initiative is targeted to be ready by March, ahead of hurricane season, and is being developed in conjunction with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “HUD and FEMA have identified a service gap for the most vulnerable disaster survivors, and we agree that there is a clear need,” HUD spokesperson Mike Burns said. “Our agencies have collaborated in the past to provide similar assistance, and we are pleased to once again partner.”

FEMA has come under recent pressure to reform its housing programs. The Post reported in October on conditions at a FEMA trailer park for survivors of a wildfire in Chico, Calif. The story detailed the struggles of Mike and Crystal Erickson, who lost their home in the massive 2018 Camp Fire. Crystal Erickson is partially paralyzed from a stroke, and she was unable to get her wheelchair through the gravel outside the trailer, or bathe in its bathroom, which was not fully wheelchair accessible. Mike Erickson scrambled with little government support to find a permanent place for him and his wife to live, a challenge made more difficult by a saturated housing market and skyrocketing rents after the loss of 14,000 homes.

When FEMA closed the park in September, three years after the fire, the Ericksons were left with no prospects beyond some nights booked in a hotel. Camp Fire survivors now make up a third of Chico’s homeless population.

Following the Post report, a House subcommittee held oversight hearings to scrutinize whether FEMA was adequately helping people after wildfires, one of several kinds of disasters becoming more frequent and severe because of climate change. Lawmakers said they were disturbed that the Chico trailers had cost more than $300,000 each to install — enough to rent a two-bedroom apartment in the area for a decade — and by the lack of case management to help survivors connect with social services.

“How can we develop a solution in which all of the resources that exist can be focused for the benefit of those individuals such as the Ericksons?” Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) asked. After the hearing, the full committee approved legislation to improve FEMA’s case management services.

This isn’t the first time FEMA and HUD have worked together — the agencies partnered to provide rental assistance and mandatory case management beginning in 2007, after Hurricane Katrina left thousands of survivors in trailers that were criticized for being flimsy and tainted with formaldehyde. Over the following years, the trailer-park model of transitional housing became less common for disaster survivors and by 2013 had gone almost extinct. But under the Trump administration, FEMA returned to building entire trailer-park communities from scratch, saying the HUD partnership was costly and inefficient, though there was little data to support that conclusion.

In November, top officials from both agencies met jointly with low-income-housing advocates to solicit ideas for what they are calling the Disaster Assistance Supportive Housing program. One of the participants, National Low Income Housing Coalition President and CEO Diane Yentel, said the collaboration represents a significant shift. “It means that people, rather than being in hotel or motel rooms, being in small and sometimes unhealthy trailer parks for an extended period of time, can be in an apartment and they can have all of the stability that they need in order to recover,” she said. “I feel hopeful for the first time in a long time that FEMA will make meaningful changes.”

​​It’s one of several recent reforms at an agency that has taken on an increasingly central role under the Biden administration and is distributing billions more in aid than ever before. In June, FEMA launched an equity analysis after lawmakers objected to rising rejection rates for survivors seeking help from the agency and introduced legislation that would require justification for any further increase in denials. In September, the agency ended a policy that had cut off many Black families in the South from assistance because of title issues dating back to Reconstruction. In December, President Biden signed an executive order instructing FEMA to make its online application system easier to navigate, including by letting survivors upload documentation on their phones.

The application process had been particularly fraught because of confusing decision letters. House and Senate committees raised this issue last year, and FEMA is now piloting new wording to make clear that preliminary decisions are not final. FEMA spokesperson Jaclyn Rothenberg said the revised letters should be in use across all disasters by the spring. “We know we need to improve these letters,” she said.

Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said that even as FEMA makes improvements, lawmakers will continue to monitor equity issues. “While this renewed partnership between FEMA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development is welcome news, the proof will ultimately be in how it improves outcomes for those in need,” he said.

Rothenberg said FEMA is “always looking for ways to improve assistance for survivors.”