In the ongoing struggle to ensure that federal recovery funds reach Houston homeowners nearly three years after Hurricane Harvey ravaged the region, 14 Republican legislators yesterday asked a court to give control of $1.27 billion in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recovery funds to the Texas General Land Office (GLO) instead of the City of Houston.
Earlier this year, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush had notified Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner that the GLO would retain control of the federal funds and work directly with city homeowners.
On July 8, Turner and the City of Houston sued Bush and the agency in a Travis County state district court, and later that month Judge Tim Sulak granted a temporary injunction blocking the GLO from taking control of the funds. GLO has appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.
Now Republicans representing Houston and Harris County districts have weighed in saying the city is not capable of managing recovery funds efficiently.
“Houstonians have spent the last three hurricane seasons waiting for the City of Houston to provide disaster recovery assistance,” said state Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston).
Bettencourt was one of 14 state legislators to sign on to an amicus brief filed with the court on Monday that compares the GLO’s recovery track record to that of the city. The brief also stresses the urgency of getting assistance directly to homeowners.
“Every day that goes by without adequate disaster recovery efforts compounds the harm to Houston residents. Delays in receiving assistance further damages their homes and jeopardizes their financial future,” the brief reads.
“Given the City’s failure to operate a program that meets federal requirements and properly distribute the grant funds to applicants in a timely manner, the GLO should be given authorization to take immediate corrective action.”
Five area state senators, Bettencourt, Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), and Joan Huffman (R-Houston), joined Representatives Dwayne Bohac (R-Houston), Sam Harless (R-Spring), Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), Briscoe Cain (R-Dee Park), Sarah Davis (R-Houston), Jim Murphy (R-Houston), Dennis Paul (R-Houston), Tom Oliverson (R-Tomball), and Valoree Swanson (R-Spring) in signing the amicus.
According to testimony provided by GLO, the City of Houston’s Housing and Community Development Department (HCDD) programs had only built 65 homes and only 245 families had received assistance of any kind, while the state agency had built 1,618 homes over the same time frame.
“The city should stop wasting taxpayer’s money and let the GLO finish the job,” pleaded Rep. Harless.
The HUD funds in question carry an expiration date; if not spent by August 17, 2024, the $1.27 billion will no longer be available and Republicans say the rebuilding costs will then fall to state taxpayers.
“The City of Houston continues to demonstrate a remarkable talent for mismanaging and wasting taxpayer dollars,” said Rep. Swanson. “Their incompetence now puts Houston at risk of losing vital disaster recovery assistance, which if not spent, will be returned to the federal government.”
Mayor Turner has pushed back against Bush and the GLO’s testimony and insisted that Houston was on track to expend the funds before they expire in 2024. He also said the city’s programs would distribute the funds based on a prioritization of needs, but that GLO programs would not.
While the Texas General Land Office Homeowner Assistance Program covering 48 counties launched in November of 2018, Houston’s program did not begin until January of 2019.
The GLO reports that since opening applications to Houston residents in March of 2020, the state program already has 696 applications in process, has approved 230 applications, has construction underway on 7 properties and had already completed construction on 2 homes by July 21.
Last year, after reports indicated that even two years after Harvey’s devastation Houston had only begun work on 15 area homes and Harris County had not issued any funds or begun work on a single home, Governor Greg Abbott announced that more than $4 billion in HUD funds for flood prevention projects would be managed by the land commissioner.
The Republicans’ amicus brief also asserts that the district court judge violated state law in ordering the injunction and essentially restrains “the State from performing governmental functions…”
A ruling from the Supreme Court of Texas in the matter could come by the end of this week.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.