Bipartisan plan would give aid to Sandy-hit communities and build better infrastructure

The House of Representatives and Senate advanced legislation Tuesday aimed at providing more assistance to residents affected by Superstorm Sandy and other disasters that hit the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region in the past few years.

Under the bills, more property owners and businesses would receive aid for hardening against the impacts of future hurricanes and flooding. Also, a tax credit would be extended and expanded to encourage more homeowners and businesses to install storm surge barriers, rain gardens and other infrastructure.

The bills passed by the House on Tuesday evening and the Senate on Tuesday afternoon both need to pass the full House and Senate for the legislation to become law.

The bills have support from many lawmakers in both chambers, but they would not have happened without the advocacy of prominent coastal and coastal environmental groups that sought to raise awareness of Sandy’s economic toll and demand more help for residents.

Billions of dollars have been spent or committed to the effort to remake areas impacted by Sandy, such as demolishing low-lying structures and replacing them with more resilient communities. However, many communities still have far to go.

“It would be negligent to not come up with funding for next time” that could be phased out over time, said Gordon Whitman, founder of the Leadership Council for Coastal Protection, a Washington-based group of coastal and environmental groups that opposed the Build Back Better legislation.

The Build Back Better legislation has widespread bipartisan support in the House, with more than 60 lawmakers having co-sponsored the legislation. The Senate version has more than 100 supporters.

The tax credit extended and expanded under the legislation would help about 61,000 homeowners, said Mark O’Boyle, executive director of the National Association of Home Builders, which supports the legislation.

O’Boyle said the bill would help ensure that builders “are starting to develop projects that will benefit an affordable housing market.”

The bipartisan Build Back Better legislation has been pushed by a broad coalition of advocates, officials, business people and others seeking to bolster support for investments needed to improve communities.

Iddo Benzeevi, chief executive of Riverside Construction Co., a regional builder, said Tuesday that the tax credit is “critical.” He has proposed creating a community growth and development authority that would fund numerous projects including wetlands and greenbelts to soften the impacts of storm surge.

“It’s so critical that we have a new source of money to help protect communities from the impacts of climate change,” Benzeevi said.

Democrats and environmental groups also see an upside.

Danielle Droitsch, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which joined dozens of other environmental groups in opposing the Build Back Better legislation, said: “On the tax side, this helps spur homeownership and rebuilding, while helping fund clean energy upgrades. The broad coalition of groups who fought the Build Back Better legislation and have opposed all destructive rebuilding also opposed tax breaks for non-energy efficiency investments.”

The Build Back Better legislation would increase a tax credit of 50 percent for renovations on primary residences that would go to rebuilding homes that were “a primary residence in the case of natural disasters,” using FEMA guidelines.

Another provision would extend a credit for 25 percent of the cost of “facility upgrades for public health facilities.” It has long been a target of environmental groups who are concerned that rehabilitation projects encourage environmentally destructive structures such as fast-food restaurants and strip malls.

The legislation would also direct FEMA to study additional funding for the grant program and would authorize the agency to use Sandy-affected federal funds that have been committed for future storm risk reduction activities.

Ellen Futter, a professor of ecology and environmental studies at Cornell University and a signatory to one of the letter opposing the legislation, said the provisions are largely focused on mitigation and not enough on necessary infrastructure improvements.

“The tax credit is a wonderful idea, but there’s only so much that can be done with that,” Futter said. “There’s not much in here that is going to address the fundamental challenges of rebuilding after a damaging hurricane.”

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