FEMA Offers Full Reimbursement for Pandemic Shelter Costs—But Cities Are Still Jittery

Cities and counties have been slow to take advantage of the promise of full and retroactive FEMA reimbursement to expand emergency housing programs, frustrating housing advocates. What’s getting in the way?

May 16, 2021, 7:00 AM PDT

By LM_Ortiz

Over the last year, thousands of unhoused and vulnerable people have moved from the streets or congregate spaces into hotel and motel rooms thanks to a bevy of emergency housing programs aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19. Shelterforce recently wrote about how these programs worked, and why some local governments were now purchasing hotels for long-term housing.

Though the need is still great, some of these emergency housing programs are winding down due to funding issues.

FEMA had been reimbursing cities, counties, and states 75 percent of the cost for COVID-related non-congregate shelter, but once other sources of funding ran out—like those provided by the federal CARES Act—local governments opted to shutter their hotel and motel lease programs.

There was cause for celebration earlier this year when the Biden administration announced that FEMA would provide 100 percent reimbursement for non-congregate shelter, retroactive to the start of the pandemic and through Sept. 30, 2021. Advocates said the move would make a major difference in the availability of COVID-safe shelter. “It will enable states and communities to address the urgent health and housing needs of people experiencing homelessness and other residents of congregate facilities during the pandemic,” the National Low Income Housing Coalition said in a statement after the announcement.

But cities and counties have so far been slow to take advantage of the promise of full and retroactive reimbursement to expand these emergency programs, frustrating many housing advocates. According to an investigation by Grist, only 23 local governments have submitted funding requests as of early April. What’s getting in the way?     

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