State Drafts Plan to Spend $735 million in North Florida: Here’s What You Need to Know.

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) has released a draft plan to spend $735 million in recovery funding throughout North Florida following Hurricane Michael. This is long-term recovery funding provided by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) – Disaster Recovery Program. It’s a complex program (but watch this three-minute video to get a basic understanding of what it intends to do). Here are the takeaways from my review:

HUGE WIN: Local governments may be able to receive match on Federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) applications.

Background: After disasters, FEMA gives money to local governments to make their communities more resilient (lots of tedious, but super important things like widening culverts to reduce flooding, elevating roads, generators to ensure that our wastewater systems don’t fail, etc.). These are the things you don’t notice until it’s too late. The reality is, local government must come up with 25% of the funding on its own to match the money offered by FEMA. Cash-strapped communities don’t always have this money and frequently have to pass on some projects because they can’t afford the match. Over $100 million in funding is being set aside for local governments to cover this match on behalf of local communities.

What this means is that local governments can maximize this opportunity – while pocketing money – that was expected to have to be spent as match. In fact, the Florida Division of Emergency Management even extended the deadline for HMGP applications to May 1 to allow more time to develop applications. BIG Caveat: We still don’t know the rules of this program, so hold your happy dance for now, but the money is there so it’s worth a big smile!

There is nearly $250 million dedicated to helping homeowners repair their homes.

DEO will roll out a massive housing repair effort to help homeowners who are still struggling to repair their homes. None of this money will go to local governments; homeowners will apply directly to the state and the state will manage the repair and reconstruction process for the homeowner. To get an idea of what this may look like, check out the website that DEO created to do this very same thing following Hurricane Irma. Be aware that policies may change, so this isn’t necessarily the precedent for Hurricane Michael recovery, just a good example.

The program will include specific money to help clear up title issues that can stand in the way of homeowners receiving government help. This is a major problem in North Florida especially, where people pass homes down from generation to generation, but don’t always have the paper trail to prove their ownership. This program will help clean up blighted neighborhoods in the Panhandle – that if left without assistance – could bring down property values, ultimately leading to the overall decline of a community. In addition, there is ample money dedicated to make sure that homes are built back more resiliently, including with added elevation, where needed due to flooding.

There is over $27 million dedicated to buying homes in flood-prone areas.

This program will help families who may be underwater (literally and financially) move to a safer location. Local governments must apply on behalf of homeowners and neighborhoods. Unlike other voluntary buyout programs, this program does not require a match and may offer additional funding above the pruchase of their home to relocate residents to less vulnerable areas. In addition, the local government can then use this property for infrastructure that helps further reduce flooding or even a new park. Win-win!

There is $60 million dedicated to commercial revitalization.

This could result in a face lift for many business districts that are in desperate need of it. Think new sidewalks, lighting, streetscapes, etc. – the things that make areas desirable for businesses because everyone enjoys going to them because of how they look and feel. Here’s a good example in nearby Tallahassee to give you an idea of what I mean. This can also include money to help repair small businesses, as well as facade improvements (updates to how the outside of a building looks – like a fresh coat of paint and more!). This could also include money for local governments to buy and tear down older, significantly damaged commercial buildings to allow room for new opportunities to come in. We are very interested to see the details of this program as it could be a game changer for small downtowns and communities in the Panhandle that have needed this for a long time.

There is $8 million dedicated to workforce recovery.

One of the biggest challenges to hurricane recovery is the lack of workers to support the need. As there are, unfortunately, never enough roofers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, welders, etc., to keep up with the demand, this funding will go to places that can train people on how to do these jobs. This is a major win for homeowners and for the community, as it builds local workforce to attract new economic development opportunities in the future.

There are a ton of eligible entities that can apply for these funds.

Traditionally, CDBG funds are given to local governments – cities and counties. Not the case for these funds. In fact, the following organizations can apply to receive funding for different programs:

  • Homeowners
  • Landlords
  • All cities and counties
  • State agencies
  • Public Housing Authorities
  • Community revitalization agencies
  • Community development districts
  • Community-based development organizations
  • Non-profits and non-governmental agencies (that partner with a city, county or state agency)
  • Local Workforce Development Boards (think CareerSource in Florida)
  • Educational institutions (colleges, etc.)
  • Technical centers (trade schools, etc.)

What this means is: In some cases you’ll be competing for projects with other organizations in your own community, and DEO makes the decision on prioritizing local recovery needs. It could also result in a massive amount of grant applications to review, as well as grant awards for the State to manage.

Rural communities can get help developing grant applications.

DEO has included $1 million dollars to help rural communities write the proposals needed to apply for these programs outlined in this plan. A consultant will be provided to “assist applicants with identifying, determining cost, and writing the scope for projects.” Given all of the eligible applicants and what we imagine to potentially be a short time frame for developing applications, it’s unclear how applicants will be chosen for this opportunity and how much in-depth support they will be able to provide. The advice we offer is: Wait for the fine print. We don’t think this will get a community out of the massive workload of preparing grant applications, but it could be helpful in making sure your application is in top form and ready for competition.

There is no money dedicated to new construction of homes.

While this plan will do a lot to change the face of North Florida, there is no funding for the construction of new homes. We know that affordable housing and the lack of workforce housing throughout the region is one of the biggest barriers to economic growth. There are no new homes for people to live in, so it’s difficult to build a workforce to attract new jobs. The rules for this funding allow for programs that would result in new apartments and single-family homes, but the State has chosen not to include this in their plan.

The silver lining, however, is that the Florida legislature did appropriate money for this purpose (see our recent post on this topic). Local governments should consider focusing the spending of these state appropriated dollars on strategies to get people into new homes through homeownership or rental development if this is a priority, as CDBG-DR dollars will likely not address this need.

There is a lot of great data included that could support many recovery requests. No need to read through it now, but you may want to bookmark the last 100 pages of this document. There’s great data at the county-level that can be used in future grant applications or other requests for your community. Data is the secret to telling a good story in a grant application. FEMA data is difficult to use but often the best way to show community impacts after a disaster. The last 100 pages of this document include snapshots of each community and lots of detailed data on impacts to housing, infrastructure and businesses. What looks like boring support material is actually a pretty great gift.

All rural counties MAY be eligible to apply for projects countywide.

We know, that’s confusing. Here’s the background: The federal government uses a formula to decide where the majority of the money should be spent locally. This formula is based on population and amount of damage. It can be hard for smaller, rural communities to hit the threshold because they just don’t have enough people living there to make the math work. Recently, the feds changed the way they did their math to consider smaller areas – ZIP codes. When you look at a smaller area (ZIP code) on a map, the communities can trip the threshold for amount of damage (because it’s typically concentrated in certain pockets throughout a community). However, it doesn’t make sense to think about projects in terms of ZIP codes because that’s not how we plan our communities. To make it easier for Hurricane Michael recovery, the feds are allowing states to make an entire county eligible, if it contains an eligible ZIP code. It is not super clear if the state made this decision or not. However, we hope they do. This is much easier to manage for the State and a lot less confusing for local governments.

It’s not clear how much infrastructure funding a local government can receive.

On one page the maximum award (unit) is listed at $15 million, but on another page it is listed as: N/A. While most local governments would be happy to receive $15 million any day, this could significantly limit areas that received catastrophic damage. We hope that this will be clarified in the final version of the plan, but it’s something to keep an eye out for in the future.

Now is the time to make your voice heard. DEO is accepting comments from the public through April 10. If there’s something you would like to see added or clarified in the plan, now is the time to do it. On April 11, it gets shipped off to the feds for review and the process for making changes to the plan later is difficult.

Now is the time to start thinking about projects.

With the information above in mind, now is the time to start sketching out project ideas. For more information on how to best brainstorm projects, see our earlier post.

Overall, this is a game changer and we can’t wait to see how this transforms our home, the Florida Panhandle. If you’d like to chat through the plan or any ideas you may have for projects, we’d be glad to share the knowledge that we’ve gained the old fashioned way (blood, sweat and tears!) with you. Contact us if you’d like to set up a brainstorming session at no cost to your organization. We have a Zoom subscription, so no need for an in-person meeting. 🙂