The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has approved a plan to shift control of $1.27 billion in Hurricane Harvey recovery funds from the City of Houston to the Texas General Land Office (GLO).
Although billions of federal disaster recovery funds have flowed into the city and state, disbursement of aid under Houston and Harris County administration has come slowly, and three years after the historic hurricane devastated the region some property owners are still waiting for assistance or reimbursements for repairs and rebuilding.
Last year the slow pace of the Houston program was flagged in a HUD audit, and the public learned that as of November 2019, Harris County had failed to assist a single homeowner and Houston had only begun work on 15 homes.
Consequently, Governor Greg Abbott announced last year that HUD grants for flood prevention projects would be managed by the GLO, but at that time Houston and Harris County remained in control of the recovery and rebuilding grants.
The HUD reconstruction funds carry an expiration date and must be spent by August 17, 2024, or the $1.27 billion will no longer be available to residents. Earlier this year, alarm continued to mount as Houston failed to meet the city’s own benchmarks set for disbursement.
In February of 2020 GLO Commissioner George P. Bush offered to assist Houston in streamlining and administering programs, but Mayor Sylvester Turner rejected the assistance. Progress continued to lag, and in May of 2020, Bush announced that the GLO would take over the funds and submit a new plan to HUD for approval.
Although the GLO began taking applications and initiating recovery projects in Houston and Harris County immediately, in July Turner filed suit on behalf of the city in a Travis County state district court. An initial district court injunction blocking the GLO program was overruled by the Supreme Court of Texas, but the lawsuit remains pending.
Last Monday however, HUD notified the GLO that Action Plan Amendment 7 had been approved, thus giving the state control of the recovery grants. The federal approval of the plan makes it more likely that courts will rule in favor of the state in the lawsuit.
Turner lambasted the HUD decision as “arbitrary” and said in a statement, “The homeowners and renters who have been impacted by Harvey are the ones who will suffer by their capricious action.”
The mayor says he has appealed to Houston’s congressional representation on the matter, but Republicans representing the region in the state legislature have been vocal in calling for state control of the funding.
Comparisons of the GLO and Houston programs and paint a stark contrast. Since the city filed the lawsuit on July 8, Houston has completed work on 23 homes, while the GLO has completed work on 422 homes. Since Houston’s program launched in January of 2019, the city has completed repairs or reconstruction on a total of 88 homes.
In addition, Houston has processed reimbursement requests for 93 homeowners, while the GLO has processed more than 2,800.
“We actually found cost savings in the reimbursement program that were so efficient that we have saved approximately $3 million,” GLO communications director Brittany Eck told The Texan. “Because of these savings, we think we will be able to reimburse everyone who is eligible under HUD’s rules.”
Eck also said that the efficiency of the state’s procedures will allow the GLO to completely process all applications and wrap up the reimbursement program by the end of this year.
Turner says that the city’s program is designed to prioritize those most in need, but the complicated process which requires residents to answer a screening survey before being invited to apply for funds has kept progress to a minimum. Some residents who were unable to obtain help from the city found quick assistance from the GLO program beginning last spring and have already moved into rebuilt homes.
Despite using a more streamlined process, the GLO says its program has expended more than 80 percent of funds on low to moderate-income residents.
One controversial aspect of the Houston program is a 20-year property lien that is tucked into the agreement with property owners receiving more than $80,000 in assistance. The provision would require owners to pay back assistance to the city if the property is sold during the lien period, and does not appear to include exceptions. The GLO’s program includes a 3-year lien, but makes exceptions in cases where property owners are deceased or must sell the property due to other hardships.
While Turner has also decried the HUD decision as part of a “political and partisan” environment, on Wednesday, October 7, the GLO sent the mayor a letter proposing a collaborative effort between the city and state. The letter states that the GLO would consider allowing Houston to “administer certain programs with which it achieved some degree of success,” and proposes benchmarks for the city to demonstrate the ability to complete work and draw funds before the August 2024 deadline.
According to the GLO, Turner has not yet responded to the proposal.
Houston homeowners who wish to apply for the state program may do so online, by email at [email protected], or by mail to Homeowner Assistance Program, 2100 Space Park Drive, Suite 104, Houston, TX 77058. Manual applications may be downloaded from the GLO website.
Applicants may also call (346) 222-4686 or (866) 317-1998 (toll-free) and a regional office team member will assist with the application process.
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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.