As a December 31st deadline expired, approximately $162 million – allocated by HUD to reimburse homeowners in the City of Houston for repairs they made after Harvey – remained unused. The City had worked on the reimbursement program for TWO years. Yet in all that time, the City’s Department of Housing and Community Development successfully processed only 120 applications for reimbursement of repairs. Grants awarded to those 120 families totaled a mere $2,024,000 out of the $164 million allocated – just 1.2% of available funds.
Desperate Families Needlessly Left Empty Handed
Meanwhile, flooded families:
- Never received applications, despite repeated calls and emails from potential applicants
- Received an application only hours before the deadline expired on the New Year’s weekend
- Received incomplete and misleading information.
Regarding the last point, an email sent to residents at the 11th hour failed to inform them that they just needed to start the application and sign it before January 1st. Instead, residents were told that they needed to complete the application before December 31 (i.e., before the end of the day on December 30).
A two-step application process, engineered by the City, complicated and delayed aid. Residents first had to fill out a survey to qualify to fill out an application. The City then tried to sort the survey respondents into priority groups. This increased the workload, created management complexity, and delayed the filing of formal applications for years while the deadline passed.
Help From GLO Refused
Worse yet, after missing one interim deadline after another, the City refused to let the Texas General Land Office (GLO) help. The GLO oversees HUD funds distributed in Texas. It had sent a team to Houston to help train City employees. However, the City refused to allow the GLO team into the Housing and Community Development offices.
As the final deadline loomed, it became apparent that the City wasn’t coming close to meeting its performance goals and that aid would not reach people who needed it. As a last resort to help flood victims, the GLO tried to terminate its contract with the City and take over the City’s Harvey-aid program. But the City sued the GLO to prevent the takeover. That cost even more precious time.
Before the final deadline, the GLO notified the City that it should alert all potential applicants and the media so that they, in turn, could spread the word about the impending deadline. The GLO even provided a sample press release that the City could tweak for local media. Instead, the City posted a notice on Twitter and social media. That severely limited the reach of the message.
To this day, lawsuit settlement talks between the City and GLO continue. Meanwhile, the GLO provided the City of Houston with funds for the Homeowner Assistance Program (HoAP), which included its reimbursement program.
But according to Jennifer Coulter, a would-be applicant who called the City, the City swore the GLO had taken control. The resident then called the GLO. GLO correctly said, “No, the City has it.” The back-and-forth continued until she was told the deadline passed.
Resident Chris Johnsen flooded 4 feet during Harvey. After waiting 3.5 years for help, he received an email from Housing and Community Development minutes before the close of business on December 30. It erroneously told him he needed to complete and sign the application before December 31.
He was out of town when the application arrived at 4:08 PM on December 30th, but submitted it after he returned. The City rejected his application. When he complained, the City told him, “Unfortunately we are not able to accept the application because it is past the deadline of 12/31/2020.”
Adding Insult to Injury
Being flooded during Harvey and financially devastated during reconstruction were bad enough. But being denied aid through the City’s bureaucratic bungling added insult to injury. Ironically, the City requested and received a nearly $30 million increase in the amount of aid available for reimbursements part way through the program…and didn’t make a dent in it. The amount increased from $135,691,299 to $164,117,633.
Meanwhile, people are moving on with their lives and giving up. But maybe that’s the City’s intention.
The Big Question: Why?
The Department of Housing and Community Development’s avowed goal with Harvey relief is to focus on those “most in need and most at risk.” People who can afford to repair their own homes and then seek reimbursement generally do not fall into that category. By law, at least 70% of HUD reimbursement funds must go to LMI (low-to-moderate income) households.
However, the 70% requirement does not apply to each individual program within Houston’s total aid allocation. It’s an average requirement across all programs. So the entire $164 million allocated for reimbursements could have gone to non-LMI households without jeopardizing the City’s LMI requirement.
This has all the hallmarks of a conscious decision to limit reimbursement aid after requesting more. Why?
Death of Hope
96,410 homes flooded in Houston during Harvey (see page 15) and could theoretically have been eligible for reimbursements. But only 120 received reimbursement checks by the end of 2020 – again, about 1.2%. See below.
In contrast, the GLO started its own reimbursement program (for the 48 counties in which it is administering the program) on February 28, 2019, and has already completed the program with nearly 3,000 reimbursements approved for more than $85 million.
This brings to a sad, sorry end one of the darkest chapters in Houston’s history. The end of the program means the death of hope for families desperate for assistance. Many cashed in retirement savings and their children’s college funds to rebuild their homes after Harvey.
The City claims hundreds of additional families filed applications before the end of the year for reimbursements. But the GLO has not yet confirmed those.
The City is allowed to process applications received before January 1. But the City can no longer accept applications.
Reimbursements: A Small Part of a Much Bigger Problem
On January 4, the City updated its HUD-compliance website. It showed that out of approximately $1.28 billion dollars that HUD set aside for City of Houston residents, the City still had not submitted applications for almost $800 million dollars (62.5% of the total). Said another way, the City could not achieve almost two thirds of its aid-distribution goals in two years.
The City has not returned calls, texts and emails from ReduceFlooding.com requesting comment and the City’s perspective.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 1/13/2021
1233 Days since Hurricane Harvey