State policymakers in the General Assembly should be taking the lead in planning for the long-term rebuilding effort in Eastern NC that will be needed after $2.8 billion in immediate damage and a calculated unmet need of $930 million.
The federal administration pledged just $6.1 million in additional support to address specific housing needs at the start of our state budget process—or less than 1 percent of the documented unmet need for rebuilding the region.
Even after the news broke of the federal failure to step up for Eastern NC, Senate and House leaders put just $150 million in the effort to rebuild Eastern NC. Those dollars were allocated just for the first year of the two-year budget.
Clearly the state must make a bigger commitment to rebuilding the region, not just to address damages and unmet needs but to achieve greater resiliency and a stronger economy in the region for the long-term. This will benefit us all.
But it will require a commitment now to fund rebuilding that will take place over years. Failing to meet the unmet needs request to the federal government would mean families remain without stable and affordable housing, infrastructure and environmental remediation would not be completed, and small businesses and farms aren’t operating and employing local residents. Failing to fund these immediate needs makes it more difficult to move toward full employment and resiliency in the long-term.
Some suggest that no more money should be committed until the initial $200 million allocated in December is completely spent. There are many problems with this argument.
The state’s $200 million commitment to the region to date is insufficient to address the housing, infrastructure and economic development challenges made worse by Hurricane Matthew. An additional $150 million in either the Senate or House budget isn’t going to close the gap between what families and businesses need and what is available.
Spending is about to accelerate to meet the needs of people who will receive notification this month from the federal government of what housing needs will be met. A review of the report submitted to the General Assembly by the Governor’s office shows that most of the housing costs to date have merely been to support emergency housing and temporary rental assistance. Repairs and the construction of new affordable housing units—lacking across the region—will be a significant cost, but one with the potential to generate long-range benefits if local residents are employed and new homes are located on higher land.
Gaps in funding could have a disruptive impact on such projects as land acquisition and financing terms are secured.
It is also important to note that the capacity and infrastructure to coordinate responses and rebuilding in Eastern NC has been hobbled in recent years by cuts in the state budget that eliminated support for community development corporations. These institutions served as a key anchor in the delivery of information, resources and development of concrete projects that could address needs in communities. Compounding those cuts was the reorganization of regional government infrastructures that supported the collaboration and communication across county and municipal governments and the promotion of regional solutions.
It is essential that North Carolina commit to ensure that institutions are strong and that the capacity of leaders grows and can be applied to future challenges. Our underfunding of this infrastructure and capacity in recent years is clearly challenging efforts to connect residents to services including information about programs and legal advice to challenge federal determinations, as well as actually building and redeveloping.
More significantly, our collective failure to address persistent poverty and a history of exclusion over decades is also making it more difficult to reach those directly affected. Were our systems to be oriented towards inclusion, equity and opportunity, rebuilding would still take years but would likely not face the barriers that it does today.
The answer is not to withdraw our state’s support but to apply our dollars to building systems that achieve those goals of opportunity and equity, goals that will get us closer to a stronger and resilient region.
The evidence from other disasters is clear. It takes decades to recover from disasters of the scale that Hurricane Matthew delivered to Eastern NC. It also takes resources pledged for the long-term to ensure that the immediate rebuilding is successful and the long-term capacity and infrastructure is solidified.
Anyone who thinks they can fix this on the cheap and in a few months is sadly mistaken.
Alexandra F. Sirota is the Director of the Budget & Tax Center, a project of the NC Justice Center.