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Six years after Hurricane Harvey, the city of Houston still hasn’t allocated $200 million in relief funds

By Pooja Salhotra, The Texas Tribune

Six years after Hurricane Harvey, the city of Houston still hasn’t allocated $200 million in relief funds” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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More than six years after Hurricane Harvey flooded thousands of homes and killed more than 80 people on the Texas Coast, the city of Houston has yet to allocate $200 million in federal relief funds to victims, according to the state’s General Land Office.

In a letter to newly inaugurated Houston Mayor John Whitmire, General Land Office Commissioner Dawn Buckingham offered her office’s staff to help Whitmire ensure the remaining hurricane relief dollars are distributed appropriately and quickly. She said her office has historically had a “strained” relationship with the city of Houston and that the city’s housing office has struggled with staffing issues, preventing them from managing the recovery funding.

Buckingham’s offer signals an early opportunity for Whitmire to fulfill his campaign promise to improve relations between the state’s most populous city and the state. Whitmire, a former Democratic state senator, served alongside Buckingham, a Republican, in the state legislature from 2017-2023. Last month, he defeated U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee in a landslide victory to gain control of the nation’s fourth most populous city.

Whitmire’s predecessor, Sylvester Turner, had been embroiled in a public feud with former Land Commissioner George P. Bush, accusing his agency of “hogging” federal Harvey relief money and discriminating against people of color when dispersing funds. Whitmire has indicated a willingness to work with the state to move past that feud and ensure Harvey victims receive aid.

“I am excited to work with Commissioner Buckingham, and we will create a plan to ensure the $200 million Harvey federal relief fund is distributed as quickly and equitably as possible to those who qualify and need it,” Whitmire said in a statement. “We will move beyond the historic political fighting with the State during my administration.”

General Land Office spokesperson Brittany Eck said the city must draw down the remaining $200 million by February 2025, when the city’s contract with the GLO expires.

“If that money isn’t spent, it literally goes back to the Department of Housing and Development,” Eck said. “You use it or you lose it.”

A public feud over disaster aid 

Harvey made landfall as a category 4 hurricane on Aug. 25, 2017, causing an estimated $125 billion in damage to Texas. Disaster aid immediately became a point of contention between Bush and Turner, who disagreed over whether Houston should be included in the state’s plan for disaster relief aid.

Ultimately, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approved a $5 billion block grant plan for disaster relief, with $2.3 billion reserved for Houston and Harris County.

The following year, Congress gave another $4.3 billion in disaster mitigation aid, with $2.6 billion reserved for preparedness projects in Harvey-damaged areas. That allocation would spark a new squabble between the city and the land office, which Gov. Greg Abbott appointed to administer the program.

To divide up $1 billion of the money, the GLO held a scoring competition and asked local governments to submit project proposals. The office failed to award Houston or Harris County any dollars, even though they faced the brunt of the storm damage.

Turner called the move a “callous disregard to the people of Houston and Harris County” and asked HUD to halt the distribution. “It is unfathomable that the State GLO would redirect most of these dollars to areas that did not suffer much from Hurricane Harvey,” Turner said in a statement.

After facing significant criticism from bipartisan elected officials, the GLO agreed to award $750 million directly to Harris County, but nothing to Houston.

Following that distribution, HUD issued a letter finding that the land office’s criteria for distributing funding discriminated against communities of color and violated the Civil Rights Act by causing less funding to be available for minority residents. The finding was ultimately appealed to the U.S. Department of Justice, which declined to investigate the matter.

The land office gave the second round of funds to regional bodies to distribute locally. Houston ended up receiving only a miniscule portion of those dollars.

Distribution challenges

The city of Houston has struggled to distribute the roughly $665 million in Harvey relief dollars it was initially awarded. In 2022, the GLO took $140 million of unused funds from the city and reallocated it to a state-run Harvey Homeowner Assistance Program because the city repeatedly failed to meet deadlines. The city of Houston had already turned over to GLO a more than $400 million program to repair or replace single family homes damaged by the storm.

Through the GLO program, 1,387 single family homes have been built and an additional 739 homes are approved and under construction, Buckingham wrote.

Other programs that remain under city control are “continuing to flounder,” Buckingham wrote.

That includes a buyout program through which the city purchased four apartment complexes in flood prone areas. The program requires the city to offer uniform relocation assistance to help the former tenants of those buildings find new homes. The General Land Office took over the $40 million program after the city failed to repay more than 800 displaced tenants and is now trying to identify those former tenants who are owed money.

Eck said that the city simply lacks the capacity to administer the program.

“They need to hire more individuals and train them to do this,” Eck said. “Also turnover is a difficult issue. We’d explain how to do it and said they’d have to train new people. At a certain point we said we have to take over.”

A spokesperson for the Houston Housing and Community Development Department said she was pleased the GLO is using the funds to help Houstonians in need. But she disputed the amount of relief funding remaining in the city’s budget.

While the GLO said the city has $200 million remaining, the Housing office said that figure is just $11.8 million.

“We are uncertain how they arrived at $200 million,” said Brenda Cabaniss, public information officer for the city’s Housing and Community Development Department.

Cabaniss added that the discrepancy could be a matter of semantics. She said the office has submitted a number of reimbursement requests from the GLO that have not yet been granted. However, according to the GLO, those submissions were considered incomplete because they did not comply with federal standards.

The City of Houston has a history of submitting reimbursement requests that do not meet HUD standards, Eck said, adding that the city’s success rate for submitting suitable requests has been “abysmal,” and the worst of all grant recipients.

“Houston’s Housing and Community Development Department has a history of fuzzy accounting and to HUD, the only numbers that matter are what has been drawn,” Eck said. “Not what has been expended or planned, but what has been drawn down.”

Last March, Harris County leaders held a joint press conference with the GLO to talk about their renewed commitment to deliver disaster recovery funds to Harris County and Houston residents. The event coincided with the first time that both Houston and Harris County met their benchmarks for expending disaster relief funds, which Buckingham credited to improved communication.

Now, as the deadline to spend the remaining funds approaches, there’s a new sense of urgency to allocate the funds, and Buckingham said that distributing the remaining dollars is her top priority.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/01/08/houston-glo-harvey-money/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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