Senate Republicans today blocked an attempt by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) to have the Senate take up and pass legislation he filed to force FEMA to continue providing temporary housing assistance to hundreds of displaced families who are still unable to return to their homes in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
The move comes just two days before FEMA says it will stop providing temporary housing assistance to approximately 1,700 displaced families across the country – including hundreds in Florida – on June 30.
“People are about to get shut out of the temporary housing that they have,” Nelson said on the Senate floor. “Some of them have lost everything because of these storms. Too many are still unable to find work or to find affordable housing, and especially the security deposit. For many of them, the only thing that they have is the help that FEMA is providing – but that’s only good for two more days.”
FEMA’s decision to end its Transitional Shelter Assistance, or TSA, program at the end of this month has many displaced families scrambling to find affordable places to live starting Sunday and some lawmakers, including Nelson, continue to push the agency to extend the housing program to help those still in need.
Nelson, who filed legislation last month to force FEMA to continue providing temporary housing assistance to these displaced families through February 2019, took to the Senate floor Thursday to ask the Senate for “unanimous consent” to immediately take up and pass his measure.
The legislation – known as the Disaster Housing Assistance Act (S.2880) – would require FEMA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to immediately activate a joint interagency housing program, known as the Disaster Housing Assistance Program, or DHAP, to continue providing housing assistance to the victims of Hurricanes Irma and Maria through February 2019.
The program can provide eligible families with housing assistance for up to 18 months after a disaster is declared, which means it could provide victims of Hurricanes Irma and Maria with housing assistance through February 2019. Once activated, DHAP provides monthly rent subsidies to eligible families displaced by storms to help them pay for temporary housing in the wake of a disaster.
Under Senate rules, a senator can ask for “unanimous consent” that a bill be immediately approved by the Senate without a vote. If no senator objects to the request, the bill is passed. However, if just one senator voices an objection to the measure, it is defeated.
Immediately after Nelson made his request, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) objected.
A copy of Nelson’s bill is available here.
A copy of the letter Nelson sent to Senate leaders earlier this month asking them to take up and pass the bill before Saturday’s deadline is available here.
Here’s a rush transcript of Nelson’s remarks:
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson
Remarks on the Senate floor
June 28, 2018
Sen. Nelson: Mr. President, I have some remarks to explain the two unanimous consent requests that I am making, and I understand, to accommodate the senator from Wisconsin’s schedule, I will go ahead and make the unanimous consent request prior to my remarks. I would ask, Mr. President, that I be recognized upon the disposition of the unanimous consent request.
The presiding officer: Without objection.
Sen. Nelson: Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the Committee of Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs be discharged from further consideration of S. 2880, a bill to establish a pilot program for long-term rental assistance for families affected by major disasters and the senate proceed to its immediate consideration. I further ask that the bill be considered read a third time and passed and the motions to reconsider be considered made and laid upon the table.
The presiding officer: Is there objection?
The presiding officer: The senator from Wisconsin.
Sen. Johnson: As chairman of the committee of jurisdiction, I reached out to the agency. According to the agency, FEMA has spent more than $430 million on the transitional program and provided rental assistance to families to help them find permanent housing solutions. 97% of those enrolled in the program have success political transition to the more permanent housing.
The remaining housing — the remaining households in the transitional sheltering assistance program have either received rental or repair assistance from FEMA, have a habitable home with utilities on or are not eligible for additional assistance. Partners will continue to provide assistance through disaster case management to those who still require long-term solution. So again as chairman of the committee of jurisdiction — the committee with oversight and jurisdiction over FEMA, I believe it is important to support FEMA’s objection to this. And for those reasons I do object.
The presiding officer: Objection is heard. The senator from Florida.
Sen. Nelson: Mr. President, I have another unanimous consent request, but let me just say that the unanimous consent request that the senator from Wisconsin has just objected to, indeed FEMA does oppose this and that’s the whole purpose of the U.C. Request because people are about to get shut out of the temporary housing that they have, having evacuated from Puerto Rico, evacuated to Florida, and that FEMA program runs out, according to FEMA, June 30.
But, in fact, the law is on the books that FEMA could activate that program, just like they did after Hurricane Katrina for the poor people in New Orleans that had to evacuate from their homes. In that case, most of them evacuated to a different state, a lot of them having gone to Houston, Texas.
And if the president hears emotion in this senator’s voice, indeed it is there.
Sen. Nelson: There are a lot of people that are hurting in the aftermath of two hurricanes having hit Puerto Rico, with the island still in great distress, our fellow U.S. citizens on the island of Puerto Rico and, indeed, in great distress not only because of the slow assistance of FEMA, the lack of electricity, of which parts of Puerto Rico today going on ten months after the hurricane are without electricity; of the number of people fleeing the island and, therefore, the jobs are not available because the economy has been so crippled; and naturally a number of those people have fled to where they can have safety and shelter and put their children in school — and, by the way, there are a number of schools in Puerto Rico that are closed; where they have a decent opportunity to get a job and not just tens of thousands but hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans have fled the island to the states.
And a good number of them are in my state of Florida. Now, there are in Florida 600 families that have been in temporary housing.
It’s called T.S.A., it’s called Temporary Shelter Assistance. About 100 of those families have moved on to other states. Another 100 of those families have returned to the island, but 400 of those families are still in our state, and a good number of those 400 families are still in temporary shelter assistance.
At least FEMA did not stop this assistance in March, and we got them to extend it to the end of May and then pointed out that a lot of these families in that temporary assistance had children in school and they needed to complete the academic year, and so the assistance was extended to two days from now, June 30. They have nowhere to go. Some of them have been able by working two jobs, both husband and wife, to be able to collect enough savings that they can afford an apartment.
The problem is, the apartment rentals want a security deposit that is three or four times the monthly rent. And so many of these families do not have that much money saved as a result of them being able to find work.
And so it seemed to me the humane thing to do is to activate the part of the law which this senator just asked for unanimous consent and of which it has been objected to by the Republican side, that the very same law still on the books that was activated after Hurricane Katrina hit new Orleans, that in fact that law with activated again for the purposes of Transitional Housing Assistance.
That bill has been filed by a number of us and of which the only way to get action since FEMA — and we just heard the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee say that FEMA said they’re not going to extend they don’t support it.
Well, if it was good enough for the people fleeing New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina, why isn’t it good enough for the people that are equally devastated now in Florida, having fled the deplorable conditions in their native island, our fellow U.S. Citizens of Puerto Rico? There are thousands of displaced families who are still unable to return to their homes in the wake of those hurricanes, and it includes hundreds of those families, and we estimate it to be about 400 families still just in the state of Florida.
And yet, despite that fact, FEMA is still saying that they are ending this transitional shelter assistance. This decision to stop providing assistance to these families has many of them very scared. They’re scrambling to try to figure out what they’re going to do to find an affordable place.
We’ve reached out to churches, we’ve reached out to other charitable organizations to try to help them to afford the deposit, even where they have the income now from one or both spouses working two jobs to be able to afford the apartments. And so what we’ve been trying to do with this legislation, now rejected by our Republican friends, is we’ve been trying to urge the agency to do the right thing, use existing law, activate it. You did it for New Orleans. Why not now for Puerto Rico?
The situation that many of these families find themselves in is a situation that no family should have to go through. I suspect that what we are going to see come Sunday, the news organizations in Florida will chronicle that some of them will be living in a car or going down to a homeless shelter. Some of them have lost everything because of these storms. Too many are still unable to find work or to find affordable housing and especially the security deposit.
For many of them, the only thing that they have is the help that FEMA is providing, but that’s only good for two more days. As we have tried and the senator from Wisconsin at the direction of the Republican leader has said, they are not going to let this legislation come up. These folks are not looking for a handout.
They just need a little help getting back on their feet after the storms took everything from them. The fact that FEMA has put an arbitrary deadline on this aid rather than trying to work with the people, it defies logic.
FEMA’s T.S.A. program is critical, and it has been critical to provide for them, and while I recognize that the T.S.A. program was a temporary fix, you just can’t end the temporary fix when people are being thrown out on the streets. And that was the attempt to force FEMA to act by this request to pass the legislation that would force them to act, and that’s why this senator has asked the unanimous consent request. The second unanimous consent request that this senator asked for was to activate a housing program of additional section 8 housing. Florida has used up its meager allocation, and this would have given additional Section 8 housing for those among the least of us.
I want to thank my cosponsors Blumenthal, Warren, Markey, Gillibrand, Harris, and Baldwin for their understanding of this situation and signing on as cosponsors with me, and, Mr. President, I yield the floor.