A spat between the mayor of Houston and governor of Texas has broken out a few weeks before Houston voters go to the polls to elect their city leadership.
The feud stems from the State of Texas’ recent decision to retain control of a new federal funding award, rather than give the City of Houston any direct access.
Mayor Sylvester Turner blasted state leadership, calling the move “a money grab by the state to spend it in places outside Houston and Harris County” and accusing the state of withholding previous disaster funding.
The funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) equates to about $4.5 billion for large scale and maximum impact flood mitigation efforts, infrastructure improvement projects, and community development block grants, a program long viewed warily by conservatives fearful of federal entanglement in local communities.
The City of Houston, similar to past recovery efforts, wanted to control the money — likely to ensure it is spent in the city limits and prioritized in a manner approved by city officials. But depending on what is decided, it is possible a mitigation project outside the city or county would be more beneficial to stem flooding than given projects inside the city.
Governor Greg Abbott decided the city’s track record was not up to par to be granted discretion over the funds. Pointing to the lack of progress since Harvey, Abbott fired back, criticizing Houston and its mayor for rebuilding less than 10 houses in the same time frame that the General Land Office rebuilt 1,000.
Abbott added, “The GLO didn’t slow you down. You did.”
Turner disputed these numbers.
The governor added, “In Sept. 2017 I immediately handed you checks for more than $100 million. Today 35 percent of that remains unspent.” He then asked the mayor “Where’d it go?”
According to the governor’s office, $105 million in advanced federal funding was delivered to the Houston mayor two years ago — and apparently, the city can only provide documentation to account for about two-thirds of that. This could result in FEMA requiring a return in the unspent money.
Abbott spokesman John Wittman said in a statement to The Texan, “The mayor continues to misrepresent the facts about housing. Unlike the traditional strategy for obtaining hurricane disaster funding that would typically flow through the state, Mayor Turner demanded that the City receive a separate allocation of more than a billion dollars for housing repair.”
“The General Land Office was responsible for housing repairs and rebuilding in 48 counties. Mayor Turner was slower than the GLO in getting homes rebuilt. Two years after Hurricane Harvey hit, the City of Houston has only submitted 107 housing applications. To date, Houston has only reported 4 rehabbed homes and one home reconstruction to the GLO,” Wittman continued.
On request for comment, Mayor Turner’s Press Secretary Mary Benton told The Texan via email that the $105 million came from FEMA, but that the “Governor provided $50 million for insurance and local match.” She added that “$91 million is in the cue [sic] and $68 million has been audited to date by CohnReznick, the state’s vendor.”
Wittman stressed that Turner “has a history of misrepresenting the facts about the Harvey response.”
He then called for an audit to figure out where the money and housing rebuilds stand.
George P. Bush, Texas’ Land Commissioner, jumped into the fracas saying it’s “absurd for Houston to claim the state is in any way holding up their direct allocation of housing recovery funds.” He added that GLO has 1,400 houses and 1,676 multi-family rental units fully repaired or approved to be repaired.
The numbers being cited by both sides are from GLO’s weekly documentation of progress on Harvey recovery.
The GLO offers two service programs for victims of Harvey. The first is the Homeowner Assistance Program (HAP) which helps repair and rebuild homes. The second is the Homeowner Reimbursement Program (HRP) which reimburses homeowners for out-of-pocket expenses up to $50,000.
According to its latest HAP report, 1,355 GLO rebuilding projects are either approved, underway, or completed. Out of 13,358 applications, just under 22 percent have been waitlisted and under 12 percent have been determined ineligible.
Over 7,500 are in the beginning stages post-application.
Meanwhile, the HRP has doled out about $15.3 million in reimbursement funds to homeowners.
Another contributing factor to the governor’s determination that Houston is not competent enough to oversee these new funds was the change in requested funding for road repair.
Emails obtained by The Texan from about a year after Harvey devastated Houston show Houston’s chief recovery officer, Marvin Odum, changed from requesting roughly $2 billion to $1 million. Odum justified the change saying the high estimation was due to forecasting based on damage from Hurricane Katrina.
Odum stepped down in late 2018 and has since been replaced by Stephen Costello.
The Houston mayor’s office did not respond to request for comment and the city’s chief recovery officer could not comment on the revised road fund repair request and referred us to the mayor’s office.
Turner — who is currently facing numerous allegations of cronyism and mismanagement during his reelection campaign — addressed the dispute at a Wednesday press conference.
“I think the Governor put out that they’ve done 1,000 homes; that’s not true. It’s 176, and the state got started 6 months ahead of the local governments.”
As of October 11, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has not responded The Texan’s request for verification or comment on Houston’s access to funds, though that investigation is ongoing.
The state signed its contract for the federal funding in August 2018 while Houston waited until January of 2019. And the state started its rebuilding efforts in December 2018 — a month before the city even signed its contract.
“Based on the rules of the state and the federal government, on every single file we have to do an eligibility determination,” Turner said. “We have to determine who is the owner of the home, and we have to verify income. We have to do an environmental site inspection on every home.”
“That environmental inspection alone takes about 45 days. In order to do more, a few weeks ago the city council approved another contract for $4.5 million to bring on even more inspectors.”
Turner went on to explain that after inspection, the file is then sent to the GLO for review before the city can actually begin any work.
The mayor also stated that he had requested a direct allocation of the HUD funds to ensure that Houston would have an appropriate share to spend on city infrastructure, since he says the state has the leeway to spend the funds elsewhere.
“We want to make sure that since 50 percent of the damage from Hurricane Harvey occurred in Houston and Harris County…that 50 percent of that $4.3 billion are spent in Houston and Harris County.”
Earlier this week, Houston attorney and mayoral candidate Tony Buzbee sent a letter to Governor Abbott requesting the deployment of the Texas Rangers to investigate Sylvester Turner and alleged mismanagement of federal funds.
In a second letter, Buzbee also requested a “formal review and investigation” from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.