The state is relying on a flawed methodology to distribute Hurricane Harvey housing aid that risks leaving more than $1 billion of unmet needs for low- and moderate-income Texans, particularly renters, in Houston’s Fifth Ward, greater Greenspoint and east Houston, according to housing advocacy groups.
As the Texas General Land Office prepares to divvy up more than $5 billion in aid for homeowners and renters, a coalition of advocacy groups says it already sees flaws that will leave too many people who need help without adequate assistance to get back in their homes.
"There is a fundamental bias in the GLO’s methodology that means thousands of Texans of modest means will not be able to go back home and recover," said Charlie Duncan, of Texas Housers, an advocacy group focused on low-income communities.
At the heart of the problem is how the Federal Emergency Management Agency assesses damage when officials first go through communities ravaged by storms. FEMA focuses too much on property loss and doesn’t collect much damage on the actual people who are affected, Duncan said.
The historic flooding that Tropical Storm Harvey unleashed on the US state of Texas is set to worsen, peaking in the coming days. A record 75 cm of rain has already fallen on the city of Houston forecasters say that could easily double. Storm Harvey which made landfall as a category-four hurricane on Friday bringing with it an unprecedented down poor is proving difficult to budge. Its expected to remain over state’s Gulf Coast for a while dropping about a years worth of rain in a week threats of flooding extending into neighbouring Louisiana. Tropical storm warnings have been extended into parts of the Louisiana coast as Harvey runs along the coast Tuesday into Wednesday. pic.twitter.com/lkLLHLUmJ4— The Weather Channel (@weatherchannel) August 28, 2017 Thousands of people have needed to be removed from their flooded homes. Police and Coast Guard teams have rescued at least 2,000 people so far, plucking them from roof tops by helicopters as they urged those marooned to hang towels or sheets outside to alert rescuers. Now the race is on to reach those before the waters rise again. Sylvester Turner, Houston Mayor said that the goal is rescue: That’s my directive, is that we want to focus on getting people where they are and getting them out of their homes or whatever their stressful situation maybe.” We’re with you, Texas. Here’s how you can help: https://t.co/x1uHLk6×2L #Harvey— Planned Parenthood (@PPact) August 28, 2017 Some 30,000 people in the city of Houston are expected to be left temporarily homeless, seeking shelter. And US emergency management officials said on Monday that more than 450,000 people are likely to seek some sort of assistance. President Donald Trump is to go to Texas later today. He has already signed a disaster proclamation for the state triggering federal relief funds and has now done the same for Louisiana. The storm has also hit oil production in the area. About half of the US’s refining capacity is in the Gulf region and shutdowns have extended across the coast taking around 2.5 million barrels of refining production off line.
Duncan said 69 percent of low-income homes were rejected for FEMA aid and determined not to have unmet needs, but just 41 percent of higher-income homes were found not to have unmet needs. He said GLO is relying on those unmet-need figures from FEMA, even though Duncan said he and others question that data.
The bottom line, he said, is that thousands of low income families — both renters and homeowners — won’t get the assistance they need, he said.
GLO officials say they have little choice but to rely on federal rules set by FEMA and the U.S.
Department of Housing and Urban Development to assure the state gets the maximum amount of funding. Land Commissioner George P. Bush has repeatedly warned that Texas’s overall unmet needs will be well in excess of $100 billion.
The warning from the housing advocates comes just days before GLO closes the comment period on its proposed action plan for the first $5 billion coming to the state through HUD’s community block grant program for disasters. On Tuesday, GLO will begin responding to comments from the public with hopes of sending it all back to HUD for a final review. That review historically can take up to five months, but Bush’s office has been pushing HUD to speed up that process.
Texas Housers said Port Arthur faces the most unmet needs for renters, with nearly $13 million of under-counted needs. Houston’s Kashmere Gardens, greater Greenspoint and east Houston has the next three highest amounts of unmet needs according to the Texas Housers report. Those three areas combined have almost $24 million of unmet needs for renters that the state could be on the verge of missing.
And there are other barriers for low-income families, said Rachel Zummo, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, or TRLA, that is working with Harvey survivors.
"Those obstacles can lead to low-income people not getting as much assistance from FEMA as they need to recover," Zummo said.
When lower-income people are displaced, they can have a harder time arranging inspections of their old apartments to assure their losses are properly accounted for. In addition, lower-income people often don’t have access to lawyers and advocates who can help appeal decisions that can help them get the help they needed even after they are first turned down for aid, she said.
Jeremy Wallace writes about state politics and government for the Chronicle. Follow him on Twitter at @JeremySWallace.