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12.1.4.5 State and Local Grant Programs

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State and local grant programs provide critical additional funds and resources for disaster survivor relief, due to the discussed shortfalls that can occur even after insurance and FEMA fund payouts. After a major disaster declaration from FEMA, Congress may appropriate CDBG-DR funds for the affected areas. States and local governments from those areas can apply for CDBG-DR funding to create housing repair programs, rental assistance programs, personal property and appliance replacement funds, and other services.

Recipients of CDBG-DR funds often hire outside contractors for grant administration, and, even if those contractors have prior experience in the area, they may still commit errors when administering grants. Monitor these programs closely for guidelines and compliance. Often in the rush of grant management, state and local programs issue spontaneous updated guidelines and regulations that contradict, limit, or even expand prior guidance.

Engage in task force discussions to monitor program transparency and, where possible, work with administering agencies to discuss issue prevention.97 If clients report improper denials or determinations, assess merit for appeals. Also monitor trends for broader enforcement actions, as appropriate. If clients report program denials for undefined reasons or subjective reasons like failure to establish “demonstrated hardship,” “financial hardship connected to the disaster,” or “proof of primary residence,” closely review these cases for representation.

Disaster survivors may not realize they were ineligible for programs that they applied for and from which they may have received assistance. For example, if the grant requires proof of primary residence and a client used the property as a vacation home for two months out of the year, then they might not have been eligible at all—even if they were in the house at the time of the disaster. If the survivor occupied the property for two months out of the year because they were required to travel for work ten months at a time, they may be eligible. Review eligibility guidelines for accurate legal advice and merit assessment; when there is ambiguity in guidelines or the facts, the case may be worth pursuing. In some cases, the administering agency may be able to provide more information about the ineligibility determination which can help streamline the merit assessment.

Individuals who wrongfully receive disaster assistance funds are subject to penalties and prosecution by state and federal governments. If the client is subject to criminal penalty or prosecution, be careful to not advise on criminal matters if not an informed practitioner in the relevant area of law. When criminal investigations are underway, administering agency staff normally is prohibited from disclosing anything about the criminal aspect; investigators may interview neighbors and family members to build their case against the individual.

While there are some individuals who unknowingly include inaccurate information on program applications, there are many people who knowingly apply for grant assistance on second homes and intentionally misstate information on applications. These individuals may also seek legal assistance and not disclose the full picture. Due diligence and a credible client testimony are important for merit assessment.

Footnotes

  • 97 Task forces generally convene as small groups of interdisciplinary people and resources that unite to accomplish specific objectives. In the disaster relief context, task forces may form in connection to specific disaster events with stated goals. Disaster task forces very often collaborate with VOADs and other partners, in a bigger collaborative network of advocates and resources.