A nonprofit group that advocates for affordable housing has filed a lawsuit against the Federal Emergency Management Agency seeking access to housing assistance information related to the victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
“The records requested … are likely to provide crucial public understanding regarding the adequacy of the agency’s response to the housing crisis that emerged in the wake of the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes, as well as the current ramifications of that ongoing response,” according to the complaint by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA, “has failed to provide the requested records” despite the housing group’s request and appeal for documents under the Freedom of Information Act, according to the complaint.
FEMA generally does not comment on pending litigation, an agency spokeswoman said Monday. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition on Oct. 11, 2006, requested FEMA records related to several FEMA programs, including rental assistant, agency-supplied trailers and mobile homes, “the number of individuals who have been denied various types of FEMA-managed housing support, and the specific reasons why FEMA denied support to those individuals,” according to the lawsuit.
Documents requested by the nonprofit group were sought to provide “public understanding of FEMA’s mismanagement of emergency and low-income housing support in the wake of the Gulf Coast hurricanes and to provide Congress and the White House with concrete data to support legislative or executive remedial measures,” the complaint states.
The group had asked for expedited processing of its information request “because of the urgency to know how may displaced individuals are in imminent danger of losing their FEMA assistance,” the lawsuit also states.
On Oct. 18, FEMA responded to the request and denied the requests, the lawsuit charges, sating that the group had not established how the records would enhance the public’s understanding of FEMA operations or activities.
Also, FEMA denied the request to expedite the processing of the request, stating that the group had not established an imminent threat to life or safety” or an urgency “to inform the public beyond the public’s right to know about government activity generally,” the complaint states.
The low-income housing group allegedly appealed FEMA’s response in a Nov. 10 letter. The Department of Homeland Security responded that there would be a delay in adjudicating the appeal, and on Jan. 22 issued a letter to clarify its Freedom of Information Act request.
The group stated that it is “only seeking information that is contained in existing records, including the electronic database” maintained by the agency.
According to the complaint, the federal agency had 20 days to respond to its appeal related to the information request, and more than four months have passed without receiving documents related to the request.
The lawsuit seeks a court declaration that the federal agency’s failure to disclose the requested records is a violation of the Freedom of Information Act and to order the agency to begin processing the request “immediately, on a schedule set forth by this court.”