Disaster Housing:

Implementation of FEMA's Alternative Housing Pilot Program Provides Lessons for Improving Future Competitions

GAO-07-1143R: Published: Aug 31, 2007. Publicly Released: Oct 1, 2007.

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The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides direct temporary housing assistance in response to disasters primarily through a combination of travel trailers and manufactured homes and for a period of up to 18 months. In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated much of the housing stock across the Gulf Coast region, leaving thousands of persons in need of temporary housing for lengthy periods. Uncertainty with respect to neighborhood and community recovery and individual and community resistance to the use of travel trailers for extended temporary housing challenged the effectiveness of FEMA's traditional temporary housing options. Recognizing these challenges, Congress, in the Fiscal Year 2006 Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act for Defense, the Global War on Terror, and Hurricane Recovery, provided for alternative housing pilot programs in the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina and the other hurricanes of the 2005 season, and appropriated $400 million to DHS for this purpose. To implement this provision of law, FEMA announced a competitive grant program--the Alternative Housing Pilot Program (AHPP)--inviting the five Gulf Coast states (Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas) to submit proposals for projects that would demonstrate alternatives for housing disaster victims. FEMA convened a panel of officials to evaluate and score the projects. In December 2006, FEMA announced that it was awarding Mississippi up to $281.3 million for two projects, Louisiana up to $74.5 million for one project, Texas up to $16.5 million for one project, and Alabama up to $15.7 million for one project. This report examines (1) the processes FEMA followed for soliciting and evaluating AHPP project proposals, and for selecting projects for funding and determining the funding amounts; (2) how FEMA's processes compare with those of other agencies that carry out similar types of competitive grant programs; and (3) how the group of projects FEMA selected for AHPP funding, as well as other funding options, addresses the goal of identifying alternative forms of disaster housing.

FEMA solicited applications for the AHPP based on guidance developed by staff with disaster housing expertise, convened a national evaluation panel to review and score project proposals from the states, and selected projects for funding based on the evaluation panel results and other considerations. Overall, FEMA elected to implement the AHPP as a competitive grants program, and in September 2006 released written guidance to solicit applications and project proposals. According to FEMA officials, the agency restriction of eligible applicants to the five Gulf Coast states was consistent with its understanding of the legislation authorizing the pilot program. In addition to providing information on how states should apply and the deadlines for submitting applications, the guidance went on to explain the five criteria against which FEMA would rate the applications, and how FEMA would ultimately make project selections. To evaluate the 29 distinct project proposals that the states subsequently submitted, FEMA convened a national panel of 11 federal and private sector individuals, whose backgrounds represented a variety of disciplines such as architecture, community recovery, disaster housing operations, and engineering. The panelists scored each project based on the established rating criteria. According to FEMA, 19 of the 29 projects scored competitively, and four of the five states (the exception was Florida) submitted at least one competitive project. To select projects for funding, FEMA designated a selecting official and provided the official with the results of the national evaluation panel, written comments and recommendations from individual panelists, and the written project proposals, including the requested funding amounts for each. To assist the selecting official, FEMA's Deputy Director for Gulf Coast Recovery distilled the panel's results into three options for allocating the available funds; these options called for selecting from as few as 2 to a maximum of 10 competitive projects. According to FEMA, the chosen funding option--partially funding the single highest-scoring project from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas at 85 percent of the requested funding amounts, and allocating the remaining funding to the next-highest-scoring project, which was submitted by Mississippi--maximized the number of competitive states receiving AHPP awards. According to FEMA, its selection of five projects for AHPP funding helped to identify alternative forms of disaster housing by maximizing the number of competitive states that received grant awards. However, by choosing a different funding option, FEMA could have similarly maximized the number of states receiving grant funding and, at the same time, doubled the number of projects it funded. According to FEMA, the five projects selected for funding offer a number of housing options that will improve upon FEMA's traditional disaster housing in areas such as innovative design, energy efficiency, ease of construction, and community support. However, the DHS Inspector General reported that by choosing to fund only five projects, FEMA did not fund an optimum number of "innovate and creative" disaster housing solutions, citing specifically the example of FEMA's choice to award one project $275 million of the $388 million available.4 We found that evaluation panel members' comments showed similar concerns, as 10 out of 11 panelists recommended partially funding this large project--some at significantly lower levels. While the funding option FEMA chose is consistent with the authorizing legislation, it resulted in fewer housing alternatives to evaluate under the AHPP.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Although FEMA has not conducted a competitive grant process for the purpose of identifying alternative, new, or innovative forms of disaster housing, FEMA concurred with the recommendation to consider longer time frames for applicants to prepare and submit applications in the event that the agency conducts a similar grant process in the future.

    Recommendation: In the event that FEMA conducts future competitive grant processes for the purpose of identifying alternative, new, or innovative forms of disaster housing, the Secretary of DHS should direct FEMA to consider longer time frames for applicants to prepare and submit applications.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Although FEMA has not conducted a competitive grant process for the purpose of identifying alternative, new, or innovative forms of disaster housing, FEMA concurred with the recommendation to consider minimum and/or maximum funding amounts for grant awards in the event that the agency conducts a similar grant process in the future.

    Recommendation: In the event that FEMA conducts future competitive grant processes for the purpose of identifying alternative, new, or innovative forms of disaster housing, the Secretary of DHS should direct FEMA to consider minimum and/or maximum funding amounts for grant awards.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Although FEMA has not conducted a competitive grant process for the purpose of identifying alternative, new, or innovative forms of disaster housing, FEMA concurred with the recommendation to consider stating explicitly the relative importance of the rating criteria that the agency will use to evaluate applications in the event that the agency conducts a similar grant process in the future.

    Recommendation: In the event that FEMA conducts future competitive grant processes for the purpose of identifying alternative, new, or innovative forms of disaster housing, the Secretary of DHS should direct FEMA to consider stating explicitly the relative importance of the rating criteria that the agency will use to evaluate applications.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

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