As Hurricane Laura barreled toward the Gulf Coast early last week, Juanita Hall felt helpless.
The sensation has become familiar to the 59-year-old since Hurricane Harvey floodwaters filled her home in northeast Houston’s Eastex/Jensen neighborhood three years ago. The house, which Hall inherited a few months before the storm, remains plagued by dry rot, termite damage and mold.
Hall suffers from diabetes and other ailments, and lives with her older brother Clifton, a stroke survivor. They each collect disability benefits — their lone source of income — and, like thousands of other Houstonians, have applied for federal aid to fix their flood-damaged home.
Hall has yet to see a cent of recovery money, however. Her application remains mired within the bureaucratic churn of the city’s housing department, which administers the aid.
“It’s very hard,” she said. “But I trust in the Lord. He has taken me this far and I know he’s not going to stop now. I didn’t lose no members of my family through any of the storms, but I lost my house, which feels like I lost everything.”
For Hall and thousands of others who remain displaced or stuck in decaying homes, the three-year anniversary of Harvey served as a reminder that Houston is nowhere close to full recovery.
Though sluggish disaster recovery is not a novel concept in Texas or across the country, the city has come under intense scrutiny for the pace of its single-family home recovery program, through which it has repaired or reconstructed 78 homes and sent 76 reimbursement checks to homeowners who performed their own repair work. A survey conducted over the summer by the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston found that about 20 percent of those forced from their homes by Harvey remain in temporary housing, making clear that progress has not matched the scale of need.
Mayor Sylvester Turner has blamed the slow pace on the Texas General Land Office, which administers disaster recovery funds statewide, and in July took Land Commissioner George P. Bush to court over control of the city’s recovery program. The intensified finger-pointing between state and local officials has frustrated residents and housing advocates, who say measurable progress matters more than who controls the recovery.
“People that are desperate, at this point, they don’t care how the sausage gets made,” said Chrishelle Palay, the director of Houston Organizing Movement for Equity, a nonprofit focused on housing and flooding. “They just want to make sure that they’re made whole in some way, shape or form.”
The city launched its housing recovery effort in January 2019, 17 months after Harvey, following the months of red tape that accompany every congressional disaster appropriation. Turner’s administration, led by Housing and Community Development Director Tom McCasland, has set aside $428 million for repairing and rebuilding single-family homes, the largest single program in the city’s plan to spend $1.3 billion in aid from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
By Harvey’s two-year anniversary, the city had finished no repairs and already was facing criticism. Bush cited the city’s pace in April when he notified Turner of the GLO’s plans to take control of Houston’s recovery funds and soon opened a competing home repair program.
While Harris County allowed the state to assume control of its funds, the city sued the GLO to halt the takeover, temporarily blocking the land office’s Houston program. The lawsuit remains pending before the Texas Supreme Court.
The debate is about priorities. That is what drove the city’s lawsuit and Turner’s motivation to force a meeting with HUD officials in 2018 after the GLO initially proposed running most of Houston’s Harvey recovery programs itself.
The city’s program prioritizes low-income, disabled and senior residents, which Turner and McCasland say is harder and slower but necessary to ensure the most vulnerable storm victims are not left behind. They say the GLO has rushed money out the door at the expense of the residents most in need.
State officials called the critique “ridiculous,” saying they have managed to serve the needy while also spending their funds efficiently, adding their home repair program has exceeded HUD’s minimum standard for the share of recovery funds that must go to low-income families.
GLO records show 62 percent of applicants approved for home repairs through July made less than half of the area median income, or roughly $38,000 for a four-person household.
In Houston’s program, 80 percent of accepted repair applicants made less than that amount. If the city’s reimbursements to homeowners who funded repairs themselves are removed, making the comparison more akin to the state’s repair program, the figure rises to 91 percent.
Houston’s multifamily program also places greater emphasis on the lowest-income tenants.
The city is setting aside a higher share of the apartments in its program for low-income families than the GLO. That is particularly true for those making roughly half of the area median income or less. The city’s program would produce more units for the region’s poorest families — those earning less than a third of the area median — than the GLO program, despite the state having 40 percent more funding.
The city deals also would keep those units affordable for 40 years, whereas a majority of the GLO’s affordable rental units could return to market rates after 15 years.
Though GLO officials have said they see no problem with the city’s rental program, a GLO deputy director testified last month that the takeover bid would void the city’s multifamily contracts.
Palay said the GLO’s focus on expediting its recovery program could leave behind vulnerable Houstonians, even if the agency achieves the federally mandated benchmarks for helping low-income residents.
“You have a swath of people who are in the greatest need, and that’s what’s troubling to me when I think about the GLO taking over the program, is those families potentially not being reached or served,” she said.
City vs. GLO
City officials insist the GLO has obstructed their progress by providing inconsistent and opaque oversight of the program, changing guidelines and slow-walking its reviews of homeowners’ applications.
“What was so perplexing about that is, we’d sat down with them, we’d asked them what they wanted, we’d reworked our process, we’d give them what they wanted, and then they’d come up with something new,” McCasland said. “We’d have 50 files, 60 files up there, and three-quarters of them would have this new issue, so they’d all get kicked back. It was that process over and over again.”
Brittany Eck, communications director for the GLO’s disaster recovery program, denied that. State officials sometimes ask the city to make “clarifying updates” and other changes to forms if they are deemed at risk of irking HUD auditors, she said.
For example, Eck said, GLO officials recommended the city use forms provided by the agency, such as affidavits verifying residents’ addresses, but the city developed its own forms instead.
“The GLO provided the city with the appropriate information to implement its programs successfully. However, if the city refuses to utilize the assistance, the GLO cannot be held accountable for the mismanagement of the city’s programs,” Eck said.
The land office operates its own home repair program across the 48 counties outside Harris that received federal Harvey aid. Through Thursday, the GLO said it had repaired or reconstructed 1,828 homes, compared to the city’s 78.
City officials argue the comparison is flawed because the GLO began its program earlier and received more overall aid, making the state’s home repair program more than three times larger than the city’s.
Still, Eck argued, the city’s points cannot fully account for the disparity in home repairs.
“They’ve submitted less than 500 applications to us,” Eck said. “We are not the ones pulling them down.”
McCasland acknowledged his department was not working efficiently a year ago, but said the pace has improved this summer, as his staff have started advancing 20 files per week to the next stage in their internal review process, if not always to the GLO for review.
In a recent letter to the GLO, he said the city’s pace would let it serve 1,000 families annually, exhausting its funds before the original federal deadline of August 2024; that date has now been extended by a year. The GLO, in an email to lawmakers, countered by claiming the city’s true pace would let it serve only 265 homeowners per year.
City records show Houston has submitted 40 files a month to the GLO, on average, over the last three months, an annual pace of about 475. In August, McCasland said, his staff submitted 60 files. Those figures include new files and files being sent back for additional rounds of review.
McCasland said some of the GLO’s early criticism was “very justified in terms of wanting a faster pace,” but said, “GLO wants to pretend like we’re still back in August of 2019 in terms of production, and we aren’t. The biggest difference since then is we‘ve owned our mistakes and corrected for them — the GLO still hasn’t.”
All 14 Republican members of Houston’s state delegation, meanwhile, have sided with the land office, filing a brief with the Supreme Court arguing that it is not worth risking the loss of federal funds.
McCasland — joined by housing advocates — argues that assessing the city’s Harvey recovery only through single-family repairs obscures the efforts being made to help renters, who make up more than half of Houston residents.
The city’s $350 million program to build or refurbish apartment buildings is expected to help produce roughly 3,200 affordable units, McCasland said, while the home repairs will serve roughly 4,500 residents.
“Renters are left behind over and over again after disasters across this country, and one of the commitments we made early on is we were going to properly prioritize renters in our disaster recovery program,” McCasland said. “The conversation so far has assumed that really the only thing to focus on is helping homeowners repair. When Harvey hit, it did not distinguish between renters and homeowners.”
Last October, renters filed a federal lawsuit against HUD and the GLO accusing the agencies of favoring homeowners and developers over low-income renters, many of whom are Black and Latino. McCasland, citing that lawsuit, said “the focus on homeowners as the only families that need to recover from Harvey is a focus that many housing advocates have fought back against.”
Zoe Middleton, the Houston and Southeast Texas co-director at Texas Housers, said the city’s multifamily program contains some flaws but goes beyond the typical storm recovery effort.
“The larger system of disaster recovery is broken for renters,” she said. “I think it’s really a programmatic failure.”