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Testimony of Roy A. Bernardi
Deputy Secretary
before the Subcommittee on Transportation, Treasury, and
Housing and Urban Development, the Judiciary, District of Columbia
and Related Agencies
U.S. House of Representatives

September 27, 2005

Hurricane Katrina Response, Recovery, and Relief Efforts at HUD

Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member, distinguished Members of the Committee; it is a privilege to appear before you to represent Secretary Jackson and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) this morning. I am pleased to have with me today, the Department's Assistant Secretary for Housing and Federal Housing Administration (FHA) Commissioner, Brian Montgomery.

The devastation visited upon Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana - most visibly New Orleans - has filled our television screens and broken our hearts. The order of magnitude is tremendous, directly affecting over 4.3 million people in those Gulf Coast states and countless others who have answered the call to help those in need.

Of course, over the weekend, Hurricane Rita has visited additional destruction on southwest Louisiana and Texas. While it is too early to give firm numbers regarding the scale and scope of damage from Rita (and the number of people affected), we will be getting back to you soon with the best estimates we have.

The unprecedented housing crisis caused by Katrina requires a tremendous amount of cooperation and coordination on the part of our government. On Friday, Secretary Jackson and Secretary Chertoff announced a comprehensive housing assistance program to meet the immediate needs of individuals and families displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The Departments of Homeland Security and HUD announced a series of measures to provide transitional housing assistance to evacuees. The Federal government is taking action to cut through red tape and bureaucracy and provide evacuees help with flexibility, choice, and portability to move from temporary shelters to more stable housing.

Among the activities announced, FEMA is accelerating assistance to individuals and households - providing previous homeowners and renters with housing assistance. Rental assistance will cover 3 months of housing costs totaling $2,358 and for qualifying evacuees may be extended for up to 18 months. To reduce up-front paperwork and provide immediate aid, households will receive an initial lump sum rental assistance payment to cover 3 months of housing needs. This payment is determined by a national average of the fair market rents for a two-bedroom unit.

While the majority of evacuees will receive assistance through FEMA, some are eligible for benefits under HUD's Katrina Disaster Housing Assistance Program. Housing vouchers will be given to evacuees that were previously in government housing programs or were homeless. These vouchers give evacuees the choice and flexibility they need to find housing for up to 18 months. Through these programs, displaced families will have the opportunity to relocate to cities and towns of their choice where the housing availability and job markets meet their immediate needs.

Immediate Actions Taken by HUD:

Prior to Hurricane Katrina's landfall, Secretary Jackson directed the establishment of a working group to prepare for possible problems related to the hurricane. When the level of destruction caused by Katrina was understood, Secretary Jackson directed the establishment of the Hurricane Recovery and Response Center (HRRC), and asked me to take a lead role in shaping the Department's vital and active role in responding to immediate, long-term temporary and permanent housing needs of the displaced residents. The HRRC is for internal inquiries only. Both the Secretary and I felt Brian Montgomery, given his previous experience leading the White House's interagency effort following the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, should lead the day-to-day operations of the HRRC.

This emergency management center serves as a command post with staff from every program office including Housing, Public and Indian Housing, Community Planning and Development, General Counsel, and Public Affairs. The HRRC reports directly to the Secretary and is housed at HUD Headquarters. Shortly after being established, this management center quickly identified over 20,000 units of multifamily housing as a result of a nationwide survey of vacant rental housing units in the Department's portfolio. Also, the HRRC has dispatched 45 HUD specialists with expertise on manufactured housing, reconstruction, and community planning with plans to dispatch additional individuals.

As you know, the Department has recently submitted Waiver Legislation for your review. We want to work with the Members of this Committee to provide the Department with responsible flexibility in meeting the needs of storm victims.

The White House has also created a Hurricane Katrina Task Force on Housing and Relocation Policy to lead the housing efforts through all stages, from shelters to long-term housing. I am the chair of this interagency effort that is composed of a total of 12 agencies, including USDA, VA, DOD, and SBA.

The efforts of this Task Force will focus on combining state, local, federal, and non-governmental resources to maximize the housing and re-development efforts in New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast. The immediate focus of these resources will be the housing of hurricane victims with some long-term thoughts toward the re-development of New Orleans and other damaged areas. We have had two productive interagency meetings so far and have identified challenges and provided recommendations for specific charges given to the Task Force by the White House.

We have also joined with FEMA to establish the Joint Housing Solutions Center, located in Baton Rouge. The Joint Housing Solutions Center is the central location for inter-agency housing coordination and planning. The Department's lead representative at the center is Hank Williams who serves as our Deputy Assistant Secretary for Multifamily Housing.

HUD is working with organizations that are setting up "one-stop" centers in major shelters such as Reunion Arena and the DC Armory. These centers allow HUD officials to meet with displaced individuals and determine how HUD can assist them in finding more appropriate temporary housing or permanent housing in the host city. HUD offices in at least 20 cities are serving evacuees across the country. HUD has placed nearly 1,000 families in subsidized units with the "one stop" centers.

Also, Secretary Jackson reached out to the United States Conference of Mayors (USCM) and the National Association of Counties (NACo) to seek their support in coordinating the identification of housing opportunities for the hurricane victims. All organizations have responded by establishing links on their websites for mayors, communities, and individuals to register housing assistance assets. The response to this call to action has been tremendous by mayors from across the country - including Detroit, Philadelphia, Alleghany County (PA), and Miami-Dade County each housing over 1,000 displaced individuals.

As you can see, the breadth of our effort to respond to this tragedy is far reaching. Within the walls of HUD, we have also taken a number of actions to ease the suffering of those affected by Katrina. I will outline those now.

Actions by Program Offices:

The Office of Community Planning and Development has issued some 17 waivers to numerous regulations in order to ease and expedite access to grant programs and provide flexibility in the use of funds for disaster relief. I have provided the Committee with a complete list of those waivers; however, I would like to offer a few examples at this time.

We reached out directly to Governor Blanco of Louisiana, Governor Barbour of Mississippi, and Governor Riley of Alabama to provide them support and flexibility to use their programs effectively and efficiently to meet the needs of communities destroyed by the hurricane. In response to a request from Governor Blanco, we have issued a series of waivers in the HOME program that include self-certification of income, elimination of the match requirement, and greater flexibility in the use of HOME and American Dream Downpayment funds to help low income Louisianans receive tenant-based rental assistance and buy a home. We have also written to Governor Barbour, and Governor Riley to offer them the same flexibility. Beyond that we have issued a series of waivers for the Community Development Block Grant Program, the HOME program, the Emergency Shelter Grants program, and the Housing Opportunity for Persons with AIDS (HOPWA).

In the Office of Housing, FHA approved lenders have been urged to provide foreclosure relief. Secretary Jackson is personally encouraging lenders to undertake actions such as mortgage modification, refinancing, and waiver of late charges for those in the Katrina disaster area. Further, Housing has identified 5,600 single-family (HUD owned) homes within a 500-mile radius of the affected areas and is making them available for temporary housing.

On September 12, 2005, an Interagency Agreement (IAA) was signed between HUD and FEMA. The IAA sets forth the conditions and a protocol for the transfer of HUD Real Estate Owned (REO) properties held off market and made available to FEMA for purposes of providing homes to displaced persons resulting from Hurricane Katrina.

The Office of Public and Indian Housing has issued guidance to the nation's 3,000-plus Public Housing Authorities on how to assist displaced public housing residents, and they have identified over 34,000 vacant public housing units and available vouchers nationwide. The Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity and HUD's Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives have similarly made important contributions.

Management of Funds:

Concerning the issue of management of Katrina related funds, our focus on housing response and recovery related to Katrina is properly aggressive, all the while, we have not lost sight of our responsibilities to ensure that we are vigilant about ensuring that HUD funds are being used properly and for the purposes for which they are intended. It is imperative that none of HUD's funds are misused or wasted. You should know, that as requested by OMB, HUD has provided a procurement and internal funds control plan and will continue to report on and update this plan. Further, we have issued a memorandum to all HUD contracting personnel and purchase cardholders that provide guidance to govern purchases in response to Hurricane Katrina rescue and relief operations.


Finally, I have been advised of this Committee's explicit interest in the safety of the 85 HUD employees previously located in our New Orleans Field Office. I am both relieved and pleased to say that we have been in touch with all of them. In fact, over 30 have returned to work in various field offices. Their courage and tenacity are inspirational, and I appreciate the Committee's interest in their well-being.

Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member, I appreciate the opportunity to offer this testimony. We are prepared to respond to your questions.

Content Archived: June 25, 2010

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