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HUD’s Evolving Approach in Helping Communities Cope With Disasters

The agency is moving to incorporate mitigation into recovery efforts, with a particular focus on the needs of underserved communities and resilience in the face of climate change.

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Two children look on as flames engulf the hillsides behind their backyard as the Bobcat Fire burns nearby on Sept. 15, 2020. The fire burned over 180 square miles and was the second largest fire on record in Los Angeles County to date.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
“Resilience” is a word that comes to mind when thinking about how people across America have handled the struggles and uncertainty of the pandemic. It is also a word that looms large at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as we support communities rebuilding after a natural disaster.

Building resilient communities that can withstand more intense natural disasters is critical to the future health of our nation. HUD’s disaster recovery portfolio is one of the federal government’s largest investments in disaster recovery and resilience.

Last fall, Congress appropriated and HUD allocated more than $2 billion through our Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program to 10 states covering 15 major disasters that occurred in 2020. Earlier this month, HUD announced its program deliverables for these funds. This notice is a critical step to helping communities recover equitably and improve long-term resilience to disasters and future climate impacts. What makes this unique is that we are evolving HUD’s traditional disaster recovery approach by investing in climate adaptation and resilience, bringing us further along toward the goal of ensuring complete and equitable outcomes for underserved communities.

In this notice, HUD is directly incorporating mitigation as a core component of regular disaster recovery, instead of treating it as a distinct activity. What this means is that the communities receiving part of this $2 billion in funds will be required to incorporate disaster mitigation measures into all recovery activities involving construction. For example, a community in California recovering from wildfires could use the federal funds for fire-resistant building materials when constructing, reconstructing or rehabilitating buildings in impacted areas. A community in Tennessee recovering from severe storms and flooding could use its funds to elevate structures.

HUD’s notice is also unique because of its unprecedented focus on equity and underserved populations, communities that have faced disinvestment and historic discrimination. Low-income residents and people of color often bear more of the impact when climate-related disasters strike. These communities are less able to prepare for, respond to and recover from the impacts of climate change and natural disasters.

That’s why, when implementing recovery efforts, under this notice grantees are required to spend 70 percent of the funds on activities that benefit low- and moderate-income persons. It’s also why HUD is requiring our grantees to develop action plans to advance equitable distribution of assistance. With HUD’s requirements, communities will have greater resources and focus to ensure that the needs of underserved and vulnerable households are met.

In the coming weeks, and for the first time, HUD will formally solicit public comment on how to improve our efforts to advance a more timely, resilient and equitable recovery. This outreach is just the latest in our efforts to ensure a people-focused program that incorporates the values of the Biden-Harris administration. For example, last year HUD released its Climate Action Plan that details a strategy to reduce the agency’s own energy and carbon footprint while putting our nation’s communities on the path to building more equitable, efficient and sustainable housing infrastructure.

In the weeks and months ahead, HUD will continue to build on this progress, including by allocating an additional $3 billion in disaster recovery funds. This effort also includes continuing to make the case for a permanent, reliable framework for HUD’s disaster recovery funds to expedite recovery and mitigation for communities. Absent a permanent program for disasters, HUD must draft new guidance each time Congress authorizes and appropriates funding. A permanent, reliable framework would increase certainty in the federal response and speed up the delivery of assistance that could go a long way toward creating strong, sustainable, inclusive communities.

Adrianne Todman is the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She is a former CEO of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials and a former executive director of the District of Columbia Housing Authority.
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