TMCNet:  FEMA relaxes rule on rent aid

[January 18, 2013]

FEMA relaxes rule on rent aid

Jan 18, 2013 (Asbury Park Press - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Working to slim the ranks of people in its hotel and motel program -- now 1,581 households in New Jersey -- the Federal Emergency Management Agency has changed how rental assistance money can be spent.


The government is letting people who have received that assistance use one month of it for security deposits -- and keep that money when it is reimbursed by landlords.

They can only use the reimbursed money, however, for "continued disaster-related expenses," said Marty Bahamonde, FEMA spokesman.

The checks and balances to prevent fraud: the prospect of being audited, he said.

If someone was given two months' rent and uses one month for a security deposit, they can now reapply to FEMA after using the first month's rent, Bahamonde said.

Marybeth O'Brien, whose Toms River home was ruined by Sandy, said the change would definitely help her -- if she could find a rental.

"They want a 12-month lease," said O'Brien, who is staying in a motel in Cookstown under the Transitional Sheltering Assistance program. "I can't in good faith sign one when I still have a mortgage to pay." This rental assistance money may not be used to pay for telephone or television service or utilities. If someone who has received rental assistance money already paid for a security deposit with their own funds, they will not be reimbursed, FEMA said.

Bahamonde said FEMA took a harder look at a 1988 federal law, the Stafford Act, which regulates how disaster money can be spent. A "reinterpretation of an internal regulation" led to the change, he said.

"We were hearing about a lot of people who couldn't move out of the TSA program because they couldn't afford the security deposit," Bahamonde said.

The Stafford Act came under fire following Hurricane Katrina for limiting the flow of disaster money with bureaucratic red tape.

The TSA program has been used "infrequently" following natural disasters and when it has, it has been used for a week or two, Bahamonde said. The TSA program for Sandy victims has gone on for a long time by FEMA's standards, he said. Hurricanes Katrina, Ike and Gustav were other notable exceptions.

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