Tag Archive for: Coulter

Harvey Victim Denied Aid for Not Communicating After Contacting City 17 Times

Bureaucracies never make mistakes; they just defend them.

A Harvey flood victim was denied aid because, the city says, she didn’t respond to the Houston Housing and Community Development Department’s (HCDD) invitation to submit an application on May 14, 2020. However, the invitation got lost in the victim’s email and she didn’t learn of it until September 7, 2021, when the City first mentioned it in a denial of her second appeal.

Between those two dates, Jennifer Coulter, the victim, contacted the City 17 times to ask if she could file an application.

In every call, no HCDD employee ever told her that she was eligible to apply. In fact, they told her the opposite – that they hadn’t gotten to her “Priority Group” yet. After misleading her, when New Year’s Eve came and went last year, the Harvey Reimbursement Program expired, and Coulter was out. Despite multiple requests to clarify her status and two appeals , HCDD denied aid to Coulter for not communicating with them.

Meticulous Records Read Like Horror Movie Script

Fortunately, Coulter kept meticulous records of her calls, emails and attempts to contact HCDD. Reading her log is like a horror movie.

Many others, who were denied aid, experienced variations of her problems. For instance, after two years of being kept in the dark about whether he could submit an application, HCDD notified one man that he could apply just hours before the program expired on New Year’s Eve. HCDD told him that he needed to submit his application by 5PM or lose eligibility. Unfortunately, he was visiting out-of-town relatives and didn’t have access to required documents.

Chronic bad planning, mismanagement, disorganization, understaffing, miscommunication and poor record-keeping at HCDD created a malignant and crippled aid-distribution system after Harvey.

In Coulter’s case and many others, HCDD problems victimized flood victims a second time.

Coulter home after Harvey. The family lived in a travel trailer in their driveway for a year with two adults, two kids, two cats and one dog, while they made repairs with money in their 401Ks and kids’ college funds.

Organizational Travesty Compounded Natural Tragedy

I would say Coulter’s case is one of the saddest stories to come out of Harvey…if so many others hadn’t been denied aid for similar reasons.

A 2019 HUD audit of HCDD found in part that “Staff members worked independently and did not communicate with each other re: applications.” Coulter’s call log vividly brings to life the chaos that flood victims were forced to deal with as they struggled to find assistance from the City.

Of the tens of thousands of homes damaged in Harvey, Houston managed to reimburse only 120 families a mere $2,024,000 out of the $164 million allocated by HUD – just 1.2% of available funds. Those figures were as of December 31, 2020. The City’s 10/31/2021 pipeline report shows that HCDD has manage to reimburse another 22 families that managed to squeeze in under the Reimbursement Program deadline.

Audits 2 Years Apart Show Similar Organizational Problems

After Harvey, the City of Houston lobbied the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for approximately $1.3 billion to aid Harvey victims, such as Coulter. But a subsequent 2019 HUD audit showed HCDD was unprepared to manage the money, the caseload or the approval process.

Despite assistance and training by the Texas General Land Office (GLO), which manages disaster relief for HUD in Texas, Houston never got its disaster relief programs in gear. A second audit by GLO released last Wednesday arrived at conclusions similar to HUD’s.

While interference by the Mayor in HCDD operations has drawn headlines, Coulter’s case and thousands of others remain footnotes in this tragedy.

City’s Needlessly Complex Two-Step Application Dooms Program

Among the problems: HCDD set up a needlessly complex application process involving two steps. Victims had to “apply to apply” by filling out an online survey. Based on survey answers, HCDD placed victims in one of six “priority groups.” Group 1 represented highest priority flood victims and 6 the lowest.

HUD and the GLO warned Houston about the two-step application process even before it started. They told Houston it was too complex and would cause delays. They recommended that the City have everyone submit full applications and then sort through them to find enough qualified applicants to match the amount of aid available.

That way, everyone would have had a fair chance to meet the deadlines involved. Delays and miscommunication would not have been a factor. HCDD’s repair program expired last December 31st at 5PM with only a small fraction of the aid distributed.

HCDD initially told Coulter that she was in Group 6, the lowest priority. But on May 14, 2020, HCDD sent her an invitation to submit a full application. The invitation got lost in her email. And Coulter continued to call the City for the remainder of the year. Each time she would ask if she could submit an application and each time she was told, “Not yet,” despite already having been invited.

GLO Help Rebuffed by City

GLO attempted to help HCDD, but was rebuffed and actually barred from HCDD offices at one point. When HCDD continued to miss interim deadlines for the dispersal of aid, GLO even attempted to take over the repair program. But Houston sued GLO to retain it. Ultimately, the repair program expired with only a tiny fraction of the funds dispersed and with thousands of flood victims left empty handed.

Even though Coulter called HCDD dozens of times to clarify her status, in 15 months, nobody at HCDD ever told her over the phone to check her email or that she could apply. That’s how bad HCDD’s record-keeping, database systems, and internal communications were!

Sadly, we’ve come to expect and accept stories like this from the City of Houston. HUD and GLO audits repeatedly showed problems in HCDD.

After Reimbursement Program Expired, Mayor Claims Commitment to Improvement

The mayor’s response, after the latest audit and after the program expired, was in essence, “We’ll look into it and fix it if we find problems.” His press release about the latest audit concluded, “The City is committed, as it always has been, to transparency and improving its Housing processes.”

Admittedly, the Reimbursement Program that Coulter applied to is just one of many HCDD programs.

But for the Jennifer Coulters of the world, it’s too late. The HUD money will likely go unused and return to Washington for future grants that may give other victims false hope.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/27/2021

1551 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.

1000 Days After Hurricane Harvey, Jennifer and Chris Coulter Feel Blessed in Many Ways

The latest interview in my Impact series: Just months before Hurricane Harvey, Jennifer Coulter and her husband, Chris, decided to start  a new company called Texas Power Agents. The SBA used the timing of that decision to deny them a loan. And because they were then forced to liquidate their 401Ks to repair their home (a move which Jennifer thought counted as income), the City then denied them a Homeowner Assistance Grant. Through it all, they managed to rebuild their home, grow their company, and grow closer as a family. Long ago, they stopped expecting help from the bureaucracy and rebuilt their home with their own hands and the help of friends. Now, one thousand days after Harvey, they look back at the whole experience as a blessing in many ways. 

Bob Rehak: Harvey flooded your home. How badly?

Jennifer Coulter: Almost two-feet. But we gutted up to four feet. The house was unusable for a long time because it’s a one story house.

Jennifer Coulter is dwarfed by the pile of debris in front of her home.

The Great Post-Harvey, Year-Long Camp Out

Bob Rehak: You lived in a camper in your driveway for about a year. 

Jennifer Coulter: That was our best move! We went to a friend’s house for a week. And then another friend’s. Once we figured out this was a long-term process, we got a rental property. But the landlord tried to change the amount of the lease after we moved in. So we moved on.

Jennifer Coulter: Then, a friend whose mother’s house had been vacant in Oakhurst for five years invited us to move in and just pay the utilities. But after two months, the family trust decided to sell the home.

That’s when we bought the trailer. We knew we needed to be in control of our living situation. The only way we could do that affordably was with a trailer. But we had to buy a new one; there were no used ones available. And so, yeah, we went to Oklahoma, bought a trailer and lived in it for almost a year in our driveway. Two adults. Two kids. Two cats. And one dog. That actually turned out to be the right decision. We wish we had made that choice first.

Birthday party in the driveway with the new trailer.

Fruitless Search for SBA Help

Bob Rehak: So this whole time you’re working on your house?

Jennifer Coulter: We were gutting it. But we had no means to finance the rebuild. We were trying to figure that part out. So, we applied for an SBA loan. People told us that was our only option, since we didn’t have flood insurance and there was no way to get a home equity loan.

The Coulters ran out of room in their garage and started storing carts and construction materials in their living room.

Bob Rehak: Why didn’t you have flood insurance?

Jennifer Coulter: We live more than two miles from the West Fork in the 500-year flood plain. It was a bad miscalculation.

Bob Rehak: So you started the process of getting an SBA loan?

Jennifer Coulter: Yes, we filled out the application. And because we started a small business just six months before the flood, we were not eligible. We didn’t have two years of tax returns on the business. And we were not receiving paychecks from an employer. They denied us for “inability to repay the loan.” Even though we had great credit and assets well in excess of the amount we were asking for, the SBA denied us.

Drawing Down 401Ks to Afford Repairs

Bob Rehak: Where did you go next?

Jennifer Coulter: To our 401Ks. I had two small retirement accounts and Chris had a sizable one. Taking money out of those would later prove to be yet another fateful decision.

Bob Rehak:  You were your own general contractor.

 Jennifer Coulter: Yes, we did not have money to pay one. But that meant we had to figure out how to do it ourselves. That created extra stress while we were trying to grow a new business.

Chris and Jennifer Coulter in their front yard workshop during the rebuild.

Bob Rehak: Back to the search for aid. You eventually applied for a homeowner assistance grant.

Jennifer Coulter: I applied the first day you could back in February 2019.

Bob Rehak: Tell me about that process. Did you start online and then go downtown to finish?

Jennifer Coulter: They never invited us to go that far. The first step was to fill out a survey that screens people. You just give general information about damage to your home, your income level, and that sort of stuff. 

Tapping 401Ks Counts Against Them

Jennifer Coulter: So when asked about income, I put what was on our 2018 tax return because I thought that was what they required. But we were cleaning out retirement funds to repair the home, because the business had not yet taken off. I was told that within days or maybe two weeks that someone would reach out to us. And at that point, we would fill out a formal application. Then we would receive whatever funds we may or may not be eligible for. No one ever called back.

So I called them back. At least six times. But every time, I was told, “Well, you’re in priority group six; we’re still working on priority groups one and two.”

We never even made it to the application phase to be considered for anything.

City Won’t Let Them Undo Mistake

Bob Rehak: You said at one point that you reported the withdrawal from your 401Ks as income and you eventually came to realize that was a mistake. Did you try to undo that?

Jennifer Coulter: Yes, I called and said “I’ve made a mistake. I think I put something as income that really shouldn’t be income. How can I amend my survey?”

She said, “Well, we’re addressing them in the order of receipt. So if you changed it, that puts you at the back of the line.”

Bob Rehak: Really?

Jennifer Coulter: I was told not to change a thing, that I had a better chance of moving down the line if I left it as it was. And when I got further into the process and got to speak with an agent, I could work out details then.

Bob Rehak: Who were you talking to at this point?

Jennifer Coulter: The people that answer the phone at the Homeowner’s Assistance Program website.

I haven’t called in several months. It was a total waste of time. This money was allocated to help people like us. But the Small Business Administration denied us a loan, because we had just started a small business. The logic or lack thereof is just mind boggling!

Bob Rehak: So sad!

Turning Corner With Community Support

Jennifer Coulter: We’re not alone. But at least our business is growing. We have great community support. Most of our customers are in the Kingwood and Lake Houston area.  And the business is growing by word of mouth. We feel so very fortunate.

We know that our recovery will be a long one. But we’ll get there, whether we receive aid or not.

First Christmas back in the house, even if it didn’t yet have all the comforts of home.

Bob Rehak: Where do you go from here? Are you just going to gut it out or do you still have hope for the loan or the grant?

Jennifer Coulter: I’ll probably see if I can get through to the GLO and give it one last ditch effort. But I assume it’s never gonna happen.

Where’d The Money Go?

Jennifer Coulter: It hurts. We saved so hard and vowed we would never touch that money until retirement. The City of Houston got hundreds of millions to help people like us. And then, according to Channel 13, they’ve managed to rebuild less that four dozen homes in more than a year.

It just makes college for the kids and things like that a big question mark. But we’ll figure it out. We will. We believe in our business and we believe we’ll be successful.

Someday this will all be a distant memory. We’ll work it out. That’s what we do. We put our heads down, work, and move forward.

The Silver Lining

Bob Rehak: How would you characterize this whole experience in a phrase?

Jennifer Coulter: Both a blessing and a curse. At the time, it was dark and scary and heartbreaking.

But then, you know, you pick your head up and you realize that you are surrounded by amazing people. They are willing to share blood, sweat and tears…literally. They helped us tear our house apart and put it back together. They’ve supported our kids. They’ve shared what they can. And that’s more valuable than money. 

Chris and I truly feel blessed. Our kids have learned amazing lessons about what is important in life. And we now have this beautiful home that we’ve been able to remake just the way we wanted. As a family, we all had input. We all got to pick things out we wanted.

But we are no happier than when we were living in that trailer together.

Making Us Stronger

Jennifer Coulter: I have no doubt we can handle anything that comes our way, because we have, and we’ve come out ahead. And we would again. It was hard and it was sad, but it wasn’t the end of the world.

Chris kept it in perspective by saying, “This is not a tragedy. This is a major inconvenience.”  He maintained that as long as we were healthy and together, we would get through it and come out on the other side.  Hearing us say those things and watching us live them enabled all of us to come out of it together – both stronger and happier.  

Bob Rehak: Your experience would have torn many families apart. What kept you  together?

Jennifer Coulter: Laughter. We laugh together. And we love one another. And we allowed ourselves to have our bad moments and gave each other space when we needed it. But we were always there for each other. 

Children made the experience harder because we were aware that everything we said and did was being taken in by them. But we were very honest with them. When we were having a bad day, we let them see us cry. We let them see us be angry and frustrated.

We’d say something like, “We’re having a bad day. But it’s OK. You know, tomorrow will be better.” And it was. And so they got to see that light. That’s real life. You get down. You pick your head up and get up the next day and move forward.

You just do it. You don’t belabor the point that somebody is not giving you something. Make it happen yourself.

Bob Rehak: Would you like to share anything else with people?

“Home is Where Your People Are” 

Jennifer Coulter: We lived that motto. We made the best of every place we lived and at every point throughout the process. 

The power of people is just really remarkable. And this is a really special place. A lot of people say that. But the love and the support that just came at us from so many people was just really, really remarkable. We’re just very lucky to live in this community.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/25/2020 with input from Jennifer and Chris Coulter

1000 Days after Hurricane Harvey