Disaster Housing: Improved Cost Data and Guidance Would Aid FEMA Activation Decisions

GAO-21-116 Published: Dec 15, 2020. Publicly Released: Dec 15, 2020.
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Fast Facts

FEMA has a number of direct housing or rental assistance programs that it can activate to meet the housing needs of disaster survivors.

To determine which program or programs to activate, FEMA considers factors such as cost-effectiveness—which can help it provide the most assistance with available resources. But FEMA doesn't have enough information on program cost-effectiveness because it doesn't collect data in a way that allows it to analyze the full costs of providing assistance.

To better inform its decisions, we recommended that FEMA specify what cost data to collect and change its data system to add more cost information for each program.

Temporary Housing Provided to Survivors of Hurricane Michael

Temporary Housing/Mobile Homes

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What GAO Found

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) relied primarily on rental assistance payments to assist 2017 and 2018 hurricane survivors but also used direct housing programs to address housing needs, as shown in the table below. GAO found that FEMA provided rental assistance to about 746,000 households and direct housing assistance to about 5,400 households. FEMA did not use the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP)—a pilot grant program managed jointly with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—because FEMA viewed its direct housing programs to be more efficient and cost-effective and did not consider DHAP to be a standard post-disaster housing assistance program.

Number of Households Affected by the 2017 and 2018 Hurricanes That Received Rental and Direct Temporary Housing Assistance, by State or Territory

State or territory

Rental assistance

Direct housing assistance




North Carolina



Puerto Rico






U.S. Virgin Islands



Total number of households



Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). | GAO-21-116

Notes: FEMA provided the vast majority of its direct housing assistance through transportable temporary housing units such as manufactured housing. Rental assistance data are as of February 13, 2020, and direct housing assistance data are as of July 15, 2020.

FEMA's analyses of the cost-effectiveness of housing assistance programs were limited because program cost data were incomplete or not readily useable. The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act requires FEMA to consider factors including cost-effectiveness when determining which types of housing assistance to provide. Although FEMA has stated its direct housing programs were relatively more cost-effective than DHAP, FEMA generally could not support these statements with cost data. Specifically, FEMA does not collect key program data in its system, such as monthly subsidy and administrative costs, in a manner that would allow it to analyze the full costs of providing the assistance. Without such information, the agency's program activation decisions will not be well informed, particularly with regard to cost-effectiveness. FEMA policy guidance also says that FEMA is to compare the projected costs of the direct housing programs it is considering activating, but does not consistently specify what cost information to consider, such as whether to use both programmatic and administrative costs. Without such guidance, FEMA cannot reasonably assure that its assessments and their results incorporate consistent and comparable data.

Why GAO Did This Study

The 2017 and 2018 hurricanes (Harvey, Irma, Maria, Florence, and Michael) caused $325 billion in damage. FEMA provided post-disaster assistance, including rental and direct housing assistance. DHAP was a pilot grant program that provided temporary rental assistance and was used to respond to several hurricanes before 2017.

GAO was asked to review issues related to major disasters in 2018 and housing assistance provided after the 2017 and 2018 hurricanes. This report (1) describes the assistance FEMA provided in response to those hurricanes, and (2) evaluates the extent to which FEMA considered cost-effectiveness in activating programs.

GAO reviewed FEMA and HUD policies, communications, and other documentation; analyzed FEMA data; and interviewed officials at FEMA headquarters and regional offices, HUD, and Texas state and local government offices.

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GAO makes two recommendations to FEMA for its temporary housing programs: (1) identify and make changes to its data systems to allow for capture and analysis of programs' full costs, and (2) specify the information needed to compare projected program costs in its guidance on activating programs. DHS agreed with both recommendations, and said it planned to implement them in 2021–2022.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Federal Emergency Management Agency The Administrator of FEMA should identify and make changes to the applicable data system to capture cost data, including administrative costs for each of its housing assistance programs that will allow the agency to analyze the full cost of providing assistance under each program. (Recommendation 1)
In February 2022, FEMA officials stated that in December 2021, the agency adopted a new system to support the needs of the Individuals and Households Program, including the housing assistance programs. FEMA officials further stated that they planned to conduct in-depth analysis sessions (in partnership with various divisions within FEMA) throughout 2022 and 2023 to prioritize work and perform iterative software development in support of this effort. FEMA plans to build the relevant functionality to address this recommendation by September 30, 2024.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The Administrator of FEMA should specify the information needed to compare the projected costs of each direct housing program in its guidance for assessing which programs to activate. (Recommendation 2)
Closed - Implemented
On February 1, 2022, FEMA finalized two documents, which address our recommendation: the Direct Housing Cost Comparison Analysis Tool Instruction Guide and the Direct Housing Cost Comparison Analysis Tool. Specifically, the Excel-based tool includes a tab for each of the direct housing programs that outlines the costs that FEMA must consider for the program. By developing guidance specifying the information needed to compare the projected costs of each direct housing program, FEMA has taken steps to help it have reasonable assurance that its assessments and their results incorporate consistent and comparable data.

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