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5th Circuit Backs FEMA Housing Aid Standards

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June 4, 2010 by   Leave a Comment

The federal government does not need to publish new, specific standards on federal aid for homes damaged by natural disasters, the 5th Circuit ruled. The court said the current standards, though not as precise as homeowners would like, comply with federal law, according to the Courthouse News Service.

In the wake of Hurricane Dolly, more than 38,000 Texas families asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for help paying for home repairs.

Though FEMA approved the distribution of $30 million, including $25 million for housing assistance, it denied aid to many homeowners, citing “insufficient damage.”

Homeowners sued, claiming FEMA failed to adopt clear standards ensuring that federal aid would be disbursed “in an equitable and impartial manner.”

A federal judge granted their motion for an injunction forcing FEMA to publish and apply “ascertainable standards” for its housing assistance decisions, and to reconsider all denials of federal aid for Hurricane Dolly victims.

On appeal, FEMA argued that it did publish standards and regulations, according to federal law, even if the homeowners were unhappy with them.

The New Orleans-based appeals court agreed.

“In short, although [FEMA’s regulations] do not lay out the ‘criteria, standards, and procedures for determining eligibility for assistance’ with as much specificity as might be desired, we cannot conclude that the regulations contravene Congress’s directive to issue eligibility regulations,” Judge Emilio Garza wrote.

And because the agency complied with its legal obligations, the court said, its current standards are entitled to deference.

Garza rejected homeowners’ claim that the standards are so vague they’re effectively “arbitrary and capricious.”

“A regulation could always be more specific, and so it will always contain some vagueness that vests on-the-ground personnel with a level of discretion,” Garza wrote. “FEMA’s regulations for housing repair assistance are especially vague about the meaning of ‘disaster-related.’ Indeed, they do not venture beyond the statutory language.

“But this vagueness does not automatically mean the regulations are invalid. Given the nature of FEMA’s work and the compressed time it has to make individual determinations, the agency requires relatively wide discretion for the ground-level workers who make initial assistance decisions.”

The three-judge panel vacated the injunction as having been “issued in error.”

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