Housing advocates encouraged that Senate leader Stivers has filed possible funding vehicle

‘The legislature really needs to step up for us,’ says Perry County resident who lost her home and dog in last summer’s flood

By: - February 21, 2023 7:23 pm

Record floods struck parts of Kentucky in July. Bays Street in Jackson, the Breathitt County seat, was one of many places under water on July 28. Photo by Michael Swensen/Getty Images

FRANKFORT — As advocates rallied at the Capitol to support affordable housing, especially for Kentuckians displaced by flooding, Senate President Robert Stivers said discussions are underway that could lead to housing legislation during this session. 

Robert Stivers, Kentucky Senate president
Robert Stivers

Stivers, R-Manchester, filed what he called a “shell bill” that can be used as a vehicle for funding construction where housing has been lost to disasters. Tuesday was the final day for filing new bills in the Senate. The House’s deadline for filing new bills is Wednesday.

Stivers’ filed Senate Bill 196, identified as relating to the Kentucky affordable housing trust fund, but offering no other details.

“With a lot of questions out there, and we’ve been having meetings on this, we didn’t want there to be a situation that we couldn’t have a vehicle to work with,” Stivers said. 

Housing advocates welcomed Stivers’ remarks.

“We are grateful for Senate President Stivers’ attention to the commonwealth’s housing needs post disaster. We look forward to continuing conversations as this legislative response to the tornadoes and floods unfolds,” said Adrienne Bush, executive director of the Homeless and Housing Coalition of Kentucky.

Tom Manning-Beavin, president and CEO of Frontier Housing, said, “That’s encouraging that there’s a willingness to put a placeholder out there and to hammer out the details of something that can get passed.” Frontier Housing builds affordable housing in 16 Kentucky counties,

Within the past two years, Kentuckians in the western part of the state have faced devastating tornadoes and in the east, severe flooding. Some steps have been taken to rebuild these communities, but non-profit organizations working in the regions say more resources are needed. 

Eric Dixon

On Tuesday, Eastern Kentucky residents gathered with representatives of housing nonprofits and advocacy groups on the Capitol grounds to highlight the need to sustainably rebuild communities.

Federal assistance won’t come close to need, analysis shows

Based on data from FEMA, 8,950 homes were damaged in the 2022 flood, including 542 homes that were destroyed and more than 4,500 homes that sustained major damage, according to a new analysis released Tuesday by the Ohio River Valley Institute and Appalachian Citizens Law Center

One of the report’s authors, Eric Dixon of ORVI, said that six in 10 households with flood damage have incomes of less than $30,000 a year.

Few had flood insurance, and households with lower incomes received less FEMA aid than households with higher incomes, according to the analysis. 

The cost to rebuild and repair housing lost to last summer’s flood will be $450 million to $950 million, depending on how many homes are relocated to less flood-prone areas, according to the report. The lower figure is for rebuilding in areas that flooded rather than acquiring new sites at higher elevations. 

So far state and philanthropic sources have provided $159 million for rebuilding and repairing housing lost to the floods. That amount covers just 17% to 35% of estimated need.

While Kentucky is in line for additional federal funding over the next few years, experience suggests it won’t come close to meeting need, say the two nonprofits.  The largest federal funding bucket would likely be Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Funds (CDBG-DR), but the amount available to Kentucky will not be announced for several more months. 

“After the 2021 tornado and flooding disaster, Kentucky calculated unmet needs for housing, infrastructure, economic revitalization, and public services to be over $202.3 million. Unmet housing needs alone were greater than $110 million.However, the total CDBG-DR award was $74.9 million, with only $39.9 million allocated for housing. Based on this example, it is probable that there will still be unmet housing needs even after the CDBG-DR funds are allocated and exhausted.” 

“Lord knows we’ve had some rainy days”

Advocates called on the legislature to tap the state’s record surplus, sometimes called the “rainy day fund,”  to help finance housing  construction. “Lord knows we’ve had some rainy days here in Kentucky,” said Scott McReynolds,  executive director of the Housing Development Alliance in Perry County. 

Scott McReynolds

“There are people buying storage sheds to live in because that’s all they can afford with their FEMA” assistance, McReynolds said. He added the legislature could help nonprofit housing builders by committing dollars to a trust fund because “you can’t start planning until you know your budget.”

Stivers, speaking to reporters, talked about the need for planning, including moving people out of flood-prone areas and how to provide infrastructure, such as water, sewer, electricity and roads. The 2022 flood covered places that had never flooded.

Stivers didn’t rule out the possibility of the shell bill becoming an appropriations bill. As a shell bill, SB 196 could be amended as discussions continue.  In the past, he’s commented on expanding the uses of state dollars already allocated to recovery in Western and Eastern Kentucky. During a three-day special session in August, the legislature approved a $213 million flood relief package but none of that money was designated for housing. 

Stivers also filed a second bill, Senate Bill 197, that relates to disaster recovery. He said the bills have different purposes. 

Displaced flood victims speak

Terry Thies

Several people who lost their homes to flooding spoke at the event organized by affordable-housing advocates; several said they feel forgotten.

Arnold Weaver said his family thought they would have to leave Kentucky until the nonprofit HOMES Inc. helped arrange to build a new house for them on higher ground. “Just take a ride through Letcher County, as well as other counties that flooded, you’ll see there’s a lot of need there,” said Weaver. 

Manning-Beavin, of Frontier Housing, read a statement from Magoffin County resident Benetta Gibson whose family is living with mold in their home as a result of last summer’s flood. A full-time college student and mother of five, she said she was told that FEMA denied her application for aid and an appeal because the family had stayed in the home after the flood “even though I didn’t have anywhere to go live with five kids for months and months and them in school, so I stayed in my home and risked it.”

As a result, she said, two of her children have been hospitalized with asthma which she attributes to the mold. Frontier Housing has plans to repair the home, answering her prayers, she said, but “we are always going to have that fear. … I can’t go through another flood; the aftermath of one is so heartbreaking.”

Terry Thies, 70, who lost her home and her chihuahua to the flood, said she will be paying a mortgage for the first time but is grateful for the help she has received from the Housing Development Alliance in building a new home to replace the one where her grandparents and parents had lived before her.

The home, which was not in the floodplain but filled with 28 inches of water, was “the entirety of the inheritance I had from parents.” She said her community of Bulan in Perry County was pretty much destroyed and she has lost track of long-time neighbors forced by the flood to scatter.

“The legislature really needs to step up for us,” Thies said.

This story has been updated with additional information.

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McKenna Horsley
McKenna Horsley

McKenna Horsley covers state politics for the Kentucky Lantern. She previously worked for newspapers in Huntington, West Virginia, and Frankfort, Kentucky. She is from northeastern Kentucky.