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Equal Justice Works Fellows Testify Before Texas Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Regarding Hurricane Harvey Response

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Photo of Stephanie Duke (left) and Rachel Zummo (right)

In November 2020, Equal Justice Works Fellow alum Rachel Zummo and Fellow Stephanie Duke testified before the Texas Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights about discriminatory civil rights policies and practices evidenced in the response and recovery efforts for Hurricane Harvey.

Through a series of online public panels held late last year, the Texas Advisory Committee collected data, documents, and testimonial evidence from experts; as well as examined responses by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and state and local actors. The information gathered at these panels is being used to provide recommendations to the Texas Advisory Committee for an advisory memorandum that it is putting together for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to use in a statutory enforcement report that will be published in May of 2021.

At the hearing, Rachel took the opportunity to call attention to the complexity of navigating FEMA’s procedures, the agency’s lack of transparency, and the role that wealth inequality plays in FEMA’s response to disaster survivors. Rachel emphasized the need to fund more disaster legal aid lawyers who can help low-income communities access legal services, navigate FEMA’s complex paperwork and processes, and appeal FEMA’s decisions when needed.

Rachel also spoke about the barriers low-income disaster survivors face as renters or when homeowners fail to have a clear title to a residence, and the generalized stereotypes which influence FEMA’s damage inspections. Damage inspections, which presume deferred maintenance issues are the cause of unsafe conditions rather than assessing the disaster-related damage, unlawfully denies a low-income applicant the opportunity for disaster assistance. She also highlighted the failure and lack of accountability of a federal-state partnership under FEMA’s Public Assistance program, which is intended to provide immediate home repairs. In many cases, residences are not fit to live in and occupants are left with more repairs in the long term.

During her testimony, Stephanie addressed the inequitable opportunities individuals with disabilities face in accessing and benefiting from FEMA’s Individual Housing Program. Her testimony focused on the agency’s failure to provide a transparent reasonable accommodation process and its discriminatory habitability standard, which denies individuals with disabilities the benefits of housing assistance and places some at a substantial risk of homelessness and unnecessary institutionalization.

Stephanie called attention to FEMA’s habitability standard, which assumes and generalizes that all applicants can live safely and securely in the same type of environment after a disaster without risk or injury. Some individuals with disabilities who have underlying, non-obvious health conditions, require an alternative analysis of the habitability of that residence. After a hurricane or flooding event, applicants with such impairments as asthma, cancer, lupus, sickle cell or other auto-immune deficiencies cannot remain in mold infested homes without the threat of injury. Without the ability to accommodate or modify FEMA’s habitability standard for eligibility in the housing program, FEMA’s “Safe to Occupy” reason for denial is arbitrary, and discriminately weeds out individuals with disabilities from benefiting from housing assistance.

In her remarks, Stephanie also emphasized the unlawful barriers individuals with disabilities face because they are denied meaningful access to FEMA’s programs and services due to the agency’s lack of a public, transparent reasonable accommodation process. “In the aftermath of a tragedy, disaster survivors with disabilities have no way of knowing how to request or what type of accommodations to request in certain situations,” she said.

Other panelists included National Low Income Housing Coalition Vice President of Public Policy Sarah Saadian, Karen Paup of Texas Housers, Chrishelle Palay of the Houston Organizing Movement for Equity (HOME) Coalition, and Sapna Chittur Aiyer of Lone Star Legal Aid.

Rachel Zummo is a 2018 Fellow in the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps who was hosted by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc. Stephanie Duke is a 2018 Fellow who participated in the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps, and is now a 2020 Fellow in the Disaster Resilience Program hosted by Disability Rights Texas.  

To read more about the Fellows in our Disaster Resilience Program who are helping communities prepare for and respond to the unique challenges arising from all kinds of disastersvisit here.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow