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More than 9.5 million acres burned to date in 2020 fire season, including more than 800,000 in Washington state

WASHINGTON DC – U.S. Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) joined Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and other Western U.S. Senators in pushing Senate leaders to deliver critical housing assistance to Americans struggling to find reliable shelter in the wake of catastrophic wildfire damage in Washington state and across the Western U.S. This year alone, fires in the West burned over 5.8 million acres, including more than 800,000 in Washington state; claimed over 30 lives; and forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes.

“The current wildfires will further exacerbate an already critical affordable housing shortage impacting western states. Oregon, California, and Washington are short over 1.2 million affordable rental housing units, and have an average of 75% of extremely low income renter households dealing with severe cost burden,” the senators wrote to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby and Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy.

“State resources and funding were already seriously strained by the COVID-19 pandemic, and are now completely depleted by weeks of fighting some of the most dangerous and widespread fires on record. With nowhere else to turn, western states are looking to the Senate to deliver critical housing relief,” the lawmakers continued.

The senators’ request includes $15 billion for Community Development Block Grants, $3 billion for the National Housing Trust Fund, $2 billion in Emergency Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) Funding, and $1 billion for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development and Rural Housing Service. The letter also included specific program guidance to ensure the funds would put much-needed housing assistance funding in the hands of people significantly impacted by fire; help incentivize and prioritize affordable housing rebuilding; ramp up lending capacity in fire impacted states; and help repair and rebuild housing, community facilities, and infrastructure projects.

Senators Murray and Cantwell have forcefully pushed for the State of Washington and communities across the West to receive assistance responding to and recovering from this year’s devastating fire season. Just last week, the senators sent a letter to House and Senate leadership requesting that funds for wildfire risk mitigation and recovery efforts be included in the next COVID-19 relief package, and they were joined by the entire Washington state congressional delegation in a third letter since September urging President Trump and FEMA Administrator Gaynor to support Governor Inslee’s request for a statewide federal emergency disaster declaration in response to this year’s wildfires. Last month, Murray and Cantwell also asked the National Guard for a report on its readiness to help states prepare for and fight wildfires. And in September, Murray and Cantwell urged President Trump to provide additional federal assistance to states, Tribes, and communities grappling with wildfires and their aftermath. The senators have been congressional leaders on wildfire management for years, and in September Senator Cantwell introduced legislation to support pre-fire season controlled burns.

The full text of the letter is available HERE and below.

Dear Leader McConnell, Minority Leader Schumer, Chairman Shelby, and Vice Chairman Leahy,

We write to request that the Senate immediately consider and pass urgent federal housing assistance for residents of Oregon, Washington, and California impacted by historically destructive and dangerous wildfires. While FEMA has delivered substantial emergency relief to our home states, the scale of natural disasters in western states demands additional resources that can only be delivered through disaster supplemental legislation.

Since August dozens of large fires in Oregon, Washington, and California have burned over 5 million acres, displacing tens of thousands of people and resulting in dozens of fatalities. Air travel was temporarily suspended in several locations due to poor visibility, schools were forced to close, and many of our constituents have been forced to stay indoors due to extremely hazardous air quality conditions. Many of these homes and business are uninsured, leaving these victims even more vulnerable in the recovery process.

The current wildfires will further exacerbate an already critical affordable housing shortage impacting western states. Oregon, California, and Washington are short over 1.2 million affordable rental housing units, and have an average of 75% of extremely low income renter households dealing with severe cost burden. 

State resources and funding were already seriously strained by the COVID-19 pandemic, and are now completely depleted by weeks of fighting some of the most dangerous and widespread fires on record. With nowhere else to turn, western states are looking to the Senate to deliver critical housing relief. We strongly encourage you to consider including the following specific funding levels and programs as you work to negotiate an appropriate disaster supplemental response package in the near future.

  1. $15 billion for Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery
    1. To ensure that funds reach victims quickly, HUD should use the same process by which CDBG – COVID Relief (CDBG-CV) funds were recently allocated and disbursed.
    2. CDBG grantees should be allowed to immediately use CDBG-CV funds to assist people significantly impacted by fire.
    3. Current CDBG grantees should be allowed to pledge CDBG and CDBG-DR estimated allocations as collateral for funding through HUD’s Section 108 Loan Guarantee Program, and borrow up to 10 times their estimated annual allocation.
    4. CDBG-DR funds should be able to pay of land acquisition loans executed as a direct result of fire recovery efforts.
  1. $3 billion for the National Housing Trust Fund
    1. $3 billion for wildfire impacted states will help incentive and prioritize affordable housing rebuilding, including private owners of manufactured housing parks who might otherwise sell to an investor to build luxury housing. 
  1. $2 billion Emergency Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) Funding
    1. CDFI funding can quickly ramp up lending capacity in fire impacted states through the preexisting CDFI lending network.
  1. $1 billion for USDA Rural Development and Rural Housing Service
    1. Funds should be directed towards repairing and rebuilding housing, community facilities, and infrastructure projects.
    2. Expand USDA’s Section 502 Manufactured Housing Loan Pilot program to any fire impacted state, and modify lending rules to cover new manufactured homes on land owned by nonprofits and housing authorities.

We thank you for your consideration, and look forward to working with you on this matter of importance to our states.

Sincerely,