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Public Statements

Gulf Coast Hurricane Housing Recovery Act of 2007

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

GULF COAST HURRICANE HOUSING RECOVERY ACT OF 2007

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Mr. FRANK of Massachusetts. Mr. Chairman, I begin by yielding myself 1 minute, and then yield to the main author of this bill, the gentlewoman from California.

This is a bill which comes to this House about 18 months late. It is in response to the problems of the hurricane in the gulf. It is the result of very diligent work.

One week after the committee was organized, the gentlewoman from California (Ms. Waters), who is the Chair of the Housing Subcommittee, and I began to work on this. We had a very long all-day hearing in Washington.

During the February break, the gentlewoman from California took her subcommittee to Louisiana and Mississippi and had very extensive hearings. As a result of these very extensive hearings and consultations, we have brought forward a bill of which she is the primary author, which we believe does as much as can be done to respond to the needs of the people in that area that have sadly been, in some ways, neglected since the hurricane.

I am very pleased to be able to yield to the gentlewoman from California, who is the moving spirit behind this bill, as much time as she consumes as we describe our very belated, but still very necessary efforts to respond to these human needs.

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Mr. FRANK of Massachusetts. Mr. Chairman, first for 1 minute I would like to recognize myself to acknowledge the spirit in which this happened. I think this bill is a very good blend of partisanship and bipartisanship, and they are equally important. Partisanship, there has never been a democracy in the history of the world where you did not have political parties. People who are on trying to govern themselves cannot do that as a kind of a random mass. And there are general philosophical differences. The key is not to allow those legitimate differences of ideology and partisanship to poison the ability to work together. I think this bill shows that.

And I am very grateful to the gentlewoman from Illinois, the gentleman from Texas, the gentleman from Alabama. We worked together on this. There were some strong disagreements. We had a number of rollcall votes. Some of them were close; some of them weren't. We have managed to reproduce through the rule most of those, not all I acknowledge, but most of those substantive disagreements about this bill, they are in here in the rule to the extent that people wanted to redebate them. And that is important.

But I acknowledge the fact that while we had some differences, that did not prevent us from coming together on some commonality. There was never in this bill any effort to delay or divert. We managed to talk seriously. And, yes, there are differences between the parties. There is on our side, I believe, a greater willingness to provide some funding for some of these things. Those will be legitimately debated.

Mr. Chairman, let me now yield to the gentleman from Minnesota (Mr. Oberstar), who is the chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who has been very helpful, because the lives of FEMA and HUD are deeply intertwined, and trying to legislate here requires treading this. And the gentleman from Minnesota is an example to others not to allow turf consciousness and jurisdictional hypersensitivity to get in the way of good public policy. So I thank the gentleman. I yield him such time as he will consume.

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Mr. FRANK of Massachusetts. Mr. Chairman, I yield myself 30 seconds.

We agree on all the things the gentleman from Alabama said we should do. Nothing in this bill stops them from doing it.

All we say is this: please don't tear down the houses that people now live in before you replace them. We are not in any way opposed to that; but if you don't think the housing the people live in now is great, and neither do I, understand that they are only there because they can't get anything better, and that is the only point of difference. We are saying do not displace them before that nice, new stuff is ready.

And as for one-for-one, we aren't saying it has to be one-for-one right on-site. If you get a one-for-one replacement that is in mixed housing, that will be fine; but just don't displace people.

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Mr. FRANK of Massachusetts. Mr. Chairman, I yield myself 15 seconds to say I agree with the gentleman that we should not be spending a lot more money where it has been badly spent. Also, I did not think we were going to be talking about Iraq until later in the week.

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Mr. FRANK of Massachusetts. Mr. Chairman, I yield myself 15 seconds to thank the gentleman for his work on this and to say that one of the things the gentleman talked about last year when I worked with him and we decided whoever would be in the majority, we need to straighten out going forward the FEMA-HUD relationship with regard to housing. Part of the problem is, in fairness to FEMA, they should not still be in the housing business. That was not their expertise.

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Mr. FRANK of Massachusetts. In my experience the gentlewoman, someone who is not on the committee and not from the district, has really made herself an expert and an advocate. I would say this: If as this goes forward there are delays in the legislative process, yes, of course, it would be sensible to deal with the deadlines. That is, we should think of the deadlines almost conceptually as based on a certain timeline of legislation. If the basic decisions by the government slip, then the deadline should be adjusted accordingly.

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Mr. FRANK of Massachusetts. Well, I would say this, if the gentlewoman would yield to me: It is our hope, and the gentleman from Louisiana (Mr. Baker) was very active in this, and we listened to the others, the two gentlemen from Louisiana, Mr. Melancon and Mr. Jefferson, we believe we have responded to some of the issues. There was, for instance, a debate between FEMA. FEMA didn't like some aspects of the Road Home regarding whether or not you got a penalty for not staying in the State and whether or not elderly people were done. That was pulled. We have in this bill said to FEMA, please, leave that one alone. So we hope we have sped it up. No one I know of thinks that the rate of spendout of the Road Home has been sufficient to date. We hope this bill makes it better, but I don't have all the details.

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Mr. FRANK of Massachusetts. If the gentlewoman would yield, there is one other aspect that was resolved. In the committee we adopted an amendment offered by the gentleman from Louisiana (Mr. Baker) which went in the other direction and nullified one set of offsets when the gentleman from Louisiana mentioned that we had a scoring problem with CBO. There was an offset procedure for certain tax things, and frankly we felt that was not only somewhat unfair, but it was also one thing that held up the speed because we tried to offset that on the other hand.

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Mr. FRANK of Massachusetts. Mr. Chairman, the amendment offered by the gentlewoman from Illinois is absolutely irrelevant to whether or not people ought to be occupying existing units. That is not what is involved here.

First of all, let me say the gentleman from Alabama and others said they have these plans to build these great new places. Who is stopping them? The hurricane was in September of 2005. It is now March of 2007. Have they started this? Have I stopped them? Have the tenants stopped them? Has the gentlewoman from California stopped them? Nobody has stopped them.

And the New Orleans Housing Authority, by the way, is HUD in drag. So nobody here has prevented them.

Here is what we are saying. What is amended is this: if you plan to tear down units that are now habitable, you cannot do that until you have met with the tenants, talked about this and replaced them.

This is an issue not about whether you live in the existing units. This isn't about rehabbing existing units. This is as to what is the obligation to replace the units.

The fact is that, according to HUD's own figures, more than half of the rental units in New Orleans were destroyed by the hurricane. People talk about job problems. That is because they have nowhere to live.

The gentlewoman's amendment would reduce by 2,000 the number of units they would be obligated to build before tearing down things that now exist. And you know, it is very nice. We have been doing this for years. We have promised the poor people all kinds of things, and those promises don't always materialize.

All we are saying is do whatever destruction you want after you have found places to live. And let me make it clear: we are talking about people who don't live here, who live in Texas and elsewhere and they want to come back. And it is not simply former residents of public housing. There were a lot of people who were displaced from New Orleans. We don't think we are in danger of running out of people who want to come back.

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Mr. FRANK of Massachusetts. That is simply not the case. Here is the problem with the gentleman's view. They have this view that you can only build new units for poor people after you have torn down what they had. No one has enjoined them from building new units, except the budget that the people on the other side have voted for. We have got to get this clear. Nobody has prevented, there have been no plans by HUD, also known as the Housing Authority of New Orleans, to build new units. Nobody has stopped them except, yes, people have said you can't tear down what we have as the pre-condition for building. But if HUD had wanted to go forward and build, no one would have prevented that. The wonderful housing that the gentleman from Alabama talked about, the mixed-use housing, what has stopped them from building it? I will tell what you has stopped them from building it, the budgets that have been voted for by my friends on the other side that didn't have any money for new housing construction.

I will tell you what we are going to do. We are going to pass the GSE bill that is going to have the housing affordability fund so they can build these things.

So we are simply saying do not destruct before you replace and do the poor people the favor of tearing down the bad housing they live in so they have nothing left at all.

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Mr. FRANK of Massachusetts. I appreciate the kind remarks of the gentleman from Alabama. He is right, we accepted a number of amendments, and there is a great deal that joins us together. But there are some differences, and I think in the spirit of democracy, we should debate these differences.

In the amendment offered by the gentleman from Texas (Mr. Hensarling) and this amendment as we debate it, there seems to be this view, as my friend from North Carolina said, that these are people who need to be jolted out of this welfare way of life. The gentleman from Texas wanted to subject these people to a 20-hour work requirement where no work needed to be done.

Here we are objecting to these people staying on section 8 because we want, as my other friend from Texas said, we are going to have some tough love.

Let's remember who we are talking about. These are people who were working overwhelmingly. They were working at lousy jobs for low pay. These were people who were doing work in the service industry. They were living in not great circumstances, and their homes and their jobs were washed away. They were driven out of their homes to strange places. Some of those places have been very welcoming, and I was pleased to see the Kennedy family give the mayor of Houston a Profile in Courage Award for the generosity that he has shown in welcoming people. But that is who we are talking about.

People had said, well, we want to improve the quality of their life. Do Members think, Mr. Chairman, that poor people are so dumb that they are voluntarily living in worse places than would otherwise be available to them? They are not living in great circumstances, but they are the best they can find and afford. When you displace them from what they have without providing them alternatives, you are likely to make them worse off.

Now, I understand there is a problem that some people might not fully deserve what they get, but overwhelmingly here is what we are talking about: people who had jobs and homes in New Orleans and maybe some other parts of Louisiana whose homes and jobs were washed away. And they are now living in emergency conditions provided by FEMA, and they haven't yet been able to fix it.

People ask, Why don't they go back to New Orleans? Well, we have a chicken-and-an-egg problem. We have a problem where there are no jobs because there is no place for the people to live.

In Mississippi along the gulf, the Oreck vacuum cleaner company opened up a plant after the hurricane and then closed it because they couldn't get workers because there wasn't housing. We are trying to build housing.

Vouchers in New Orleans is the problem. According to HUD's own figures, more than half of the rental housing units in New Orleans were destroyed by the storm. How do you expect these people to go back?

Now we have a bill that I am very proud of. The gentlewoman from California has worked very hard on this. We got organized on January 30. A week later we had our first hearing. A month later we had our markup. We are now on the floor. This has been a very high priority for us, to try to break this cycle of no job and no housing and no way to get back and no way to live and no decent life. And, yes, we are trying to build housing and we hope that the housing brings jobs.

Will there be some problems? Yes. But I have to say, if we are going to err, can we not err on the side of people who are poor in many cases to begin with and whose hard jobs, and in some cases meager homes were destroyed, and they were driven out of those homes by a force of nature and they are living in Texas and they are living in Atlanta, and they are being told tough love. We don't think the quality of your life is good enough.

We don't think you are trying hard enough. Is that what Members think?

These are among the toughest people around that they are still integrated and they are still with their families given what they have been through, the physical and emotional horrors of that hurricane and the lack of any action afterwards. Can we not resolve together to say to these people, look, we are going to work to try to help rebuild New Orleans. Until then, we will assure you can live in these places.

These vouchers people will get are what we call disappearing vouchers. They are not permanent additions to the voucher stock. They are for the people who were displaced from New Orleans, and as the gentleman from Texas pointed out, as long as they are economically eligible.

I don't think they all want to stay there and live in these temporary quarters. As they do find alternative ways to live, the voucher will disappear. So that is what we are talking about: thousands of our fellow human beings who were subjected to physical terrors and emotional troubles far greater than most of us, fortunately for us, will ever have to go through. Their homes and their jobs were destroyed. Their children were uprooted from schools. They were driven away from where they used to live. And they have then been put under the tender mercies of FEMA. And as my friend from Texas said, every so often they were told, you know what, there hasn't been enough trauma in your life, the flood, the deaths, all that, that's not enough. Now we are going to threaten you with eviction. Now you won't know where you're going to live.

What we are saying is let's say to these remaining people, while we are trying to rebuild New Orleans, we give you assurance that you will be able to live in the circumstances in which you are now living as long as you meet the guidelines. I don't understand the opposition to that. I don't understand why that brings Members to say tough love, we are going to improve the quality of their life.

Let's let these people at least have what they now have: a home that was something they were able to put together after that great trauma. And the alternative is people say they shouldn't worry, the President will extend it.

What do you say to your 8-year-old and 12-year-old when they ask: Where am I going to school next year? Oh, don't worry, the President will extend it.

Frankly, there are a lot of people here who wouldn't feel a great comfort in that, let alone an 8-year-old.

We are dealing with totally innocent people, hardworking people whose lives were already tough, were destroyed by a hurricane and they were forced physically out of their homes. We are saying instead of them continuing to live under the fear that they may be evicted, that they may have no further support in terms of their basic living, that we as a compassionate Nation will continue to make sure that they at least have a place to live while everything else goes forward. I hope the House will accept the gentleman's amendment.

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