WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Jon Tester (D-MT) and Kevin Cramer (R-ND) are reintroducing bipartisan legislation to provide affordable housing opportunities for volunteer firefighters and first responders in order to help recruit and retain more volunteers, particularly in rural and under-served communities. In the House, the bipartisan legislation was introduced by Representatives Cindy Axne (D-IA-03), Mike Bost (R-IL-12), Frank Lucas (R-OK-03), and Elissa Slotkin (D-MI-08).
According to the National Fire Protection Association’s 2018 U.S. Fire Department Profile, 67 percent of firefighters nationwide are volunteers, and fire departments rely on these volunteers to help respond to a wide array of local emergencies. In Wisconsin, nearly 93 percent of fire departments are volunteer or mostly volunteer. Recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters is critical for thousands of communities, yet local volunteer fire departments, especially those serving small and rural communities, find it difficult to meet staffing needs and attract younger volunteers.
The Volunteer First Responder Housing Act would expand eligibility for qualified volunteer first responders to participate in certain federal housing assistance programs and provide a greater incentive for more volunteers to stay and continue to serve their communities.
“Fire departments in Wisconsin and throughout the nation rely heavily on volunteer firefighters and EMS first responders. We need to make sure that those who volunteer their time to serve have affordable housing in their community,” said Senator Baldwin. “For someone who wants to be a volunteer firefighter, or for someone who currently is, this bipartisan legislation would make owning a home more affordable and help with volunteer firefighter recruitment and retention."
“Iowa’s communities are protected every single day by our volunteer firefighters. Iowans look to these brave men and women to protect their homes, their health, and in times like we’ve seen recently, to help in the face of public health emergencies and natural disasters,” said Representative Axne. “Federal housing agencies already have programs in place to help provide affordable housing – and as our firehouses look to recruit the next generation of volunteers, it is only right that we expand that assistance to include those who volunteer to put their lives on the line to protect their fellow Iowans.”
“Hundreds of rural communities across West Virginia rely on volunteer firefighters and EMS professionals to keep their communities safe each and every day,” said Senator Capito. “The Volunteer First Responder Housing Act works to address the staffing and retention issues many stations face by providing housing incentives. By providing these incentives, we can encourage these local heroes to continue their brave work in their communities, and this bill will help accomplish that.”
“Our volunteer firefighters and first responders are essential to ensuring the safety of all Montanans—particularly folks in rural areas,” said Senator Tester. “With fire season already taking its toll in Montana, their importance can’t be stressed enough—and this legislation will incentivize more folks to volunteer, or keep volunteering, by giving them benefits they’ve earned and deserve.”
“Volunteer firefighters are crucial for keeping local communities safe and secure, especially ones in small or rural areas where it can be difficult to attract a sufficient number of volunteers,” said Senator Cramer. “Our legislation would help encourage more people to step up and serve by making them eligible for federal housing assistance programs, which would make it easier for them to relocate and give these heroes one less need to worry about.”
This legislation makes it possible for more volunteer emergency responders to participate in the Single-Family Housing Guaranteed Loan Program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development. This existing program assists approved lenders in providing loans to low- and moderate- income households to build, rehabilitate or improve a home in eligible rural areas. The bill will allow volunteers to participate in the loan program even if their income exceeds the maximum allowable income level by up to $18,000.
It also makes volunteer emergency responders eligible to participate in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Good Neighbor Next Door Sales Program. This existing program gives law enforcement officers, teachers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians a 50 percent discount from the list price of a home located in a revitalization area.
The Volunteer First Responder Housing Act is supported by National Volunteer Fire Council, International Association of Fire Chiefs, Housing Assistance Council, National Rural Housing Coalition, National Association of Towns and Townships, National Association of Counties, Wisconsin State Firefighters Association, Wisconsin State Fire Chiefs Association, Wisconsin Counties Association, Wisconsin Towns Association, and Wisconsin EMS Association.
“Senator Baldwin’s collaborative and bipartisan effort to develop the Volunteer First Responder Housing Act is a critical step toward incentivizing and rewarding the fire and EMS volunteers that quietly protect and serve millions of Wisconsinites,” stated Mike Koles, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Towns Association. “In addition to putting out fires and saving lives during accidents and medical emergencies, increasingly Wisconsin’s volunteers have provided exemplary leadership in responding to natural disasters. Yet, these heroes are retiring and not adequately being replaced with new volunteers. Affordable housing opportunities, such as created in this Act, are an essential tool in providing safe and vibrant communities throughout the Badger state.”
“I’d like to thank Senator Baldwin and all of the bipartisan cosponsors of the Volunteer First Responder Housing Act for their leadership on this important issue,” said National Volunteer Fire Council Chair Steve Hirsch. “Many fire, EMS, and rescue departments are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain volunteer personnel. Helping volunteer emergency responders buy, renovate, or refinance their home is a fantastic retention incentive that also makes it easier for volunteers to continue living in the community where they serve.”
“Local governments and first responders are on the front lines of protecting public health, safety and well-being,” said National Association of Counties Executive Director Matthew Chase. “Many counties, especially in rural areas, enlist volunteers to provide critical emergency services. We applaud this bipartisan effort to expand affordable housing opportunities for volunteer first responders and their families.”
More information on the Volunteer First Responder Housing Act is available here.