Tag Archive for: HCDD

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.

Mayor Turner Points Finger at GLO in Latest Harvey Relief Dispute

Two months after Tom McCasland publicly exposed problems in his Housing and Community Development Department (HCDD), the Texas General Land Office (GLO) released the results of its investigation of McCasland’s explosive allegations. GLO criticized HCDD on five counts. It didn’t take long for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner to return fire.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner at Kingwood town Hall Meeting

Turner Fires Back

Turner’s office issued a press release that said in part:

“It is important to note that the GLO previously reviewed the City’s Notice of Funds Availability (NOFA) 1, 2, and 3 and took no exceptions. The GLO also reviewed and approved all program guidelines before they were sent to the city council and subsequently approved. The City has operated under the GLO-approved guidelines for all issued NOFAs and will determine if changes are needed.

“Indeed, the report does not identify any violations of law, regulations or contractual provisions, as asserted by the City during the review process. The report found no conflict of interest violations of law or regulation.”

City of Houston Mayor’s Office

In essence, Turner was saying, “We were being constantly reviewed and GLO approved everything we did.”

Difference Between Guidelines and Following Them

If you took that away from the Mayor’s statement, though, you may have drawn the wrong conclusion. It’s one thing to have GLO-approved guidelines – and another to follow them. There’s often a huge difference between the way things should operate and the way they do.

A former high-level employee of HCDD who wishes to remain anonymous, told me, “You need to understand that GLO and HUD provide the only supervision of HCDD. It’s not coming from the City or City Council.”

The relationship between HCDD, the GLO and HUD has been stormy for a long time. HCDD’s Harvey recovery programs got off to such a slow start, that HUD audited them. The audit was so critical that GLO feared the state might lose future funds from HUD; HUD explicitly stated that as a possibility. That caused the GLO to offer help and increase its supervision of HCDD. And that set the tone through 2020 when GLO tried to take back Harvey relief funds – so that GLO could distribute them itself – and the City sued to keep them.

Wednesday’s blowup was simply the latest in a long line. Let’s not ignore that. This relationship has been stormy from the start.

2019 Audit Lays Out Many of Latest Concerns

Here is the entire 34-page audit from 2019. Among the concerns at the time of that first review:

  • Houston had not drawn any funds from the Hurricane Harvey grants. The city had only submitted two requests for payment to the GLO – totaling approximately $1 million out of more than $1.2 billion. GLO rejected both requests as incomplete.
  • HUD had concerns regarding “the city’s expenditure progress and overall financial management processes.”
  • The City’s compliance website did not meet HUD’s requirements.
  • Houston was operating at half staff (59 full-time employees; 61 more needed) and had turnover in two key positions.
  • “The city of Houston’s CDBG-DR program is plagued with many staff vacancies (including several key management positions), high staff turnover, slow hiring processes, and lack of effective hiring and onboarding plans for new staff.”
  • “The city’s procedures do not provide a clear workflow for program implementation and overall management of its CDBG-DR grant allocations.”
  • The City did not post details on its website of all contracts funded by HUD money as required by law.
  • HCDD provided inconsistent explanations of the process used to secure a major contract, and verbally confirmed that the selection was not based on a competitive process.
  • The City tried to seek reimbursement from FEMA for costs of a HUD program, something prohibited by statute.
  • HCDD did not follow record-keeping procedures for its Hurricane Harvey Homeowner Assistance Program.
  • Staff members worked independently and did not communicate with each other re: applications. No one individual reviewed an application for completeness.

Missing documentation explains why so many got kicked back by GLO and FEMA.

Draw Your Own Conclusion

With history like that, you can see why GLO (which HUD holds accountable for Houston’s funds) became concerned. As time passed, and Houston missed one interim deadline after another for dispersal of funds, the relationship with HCDD degenerated into a lawsuit. A year after the settlement, many of the same problems still exist. The interim director has openly testified in front of City Council that the City could be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars in budget overruns.

The Mayor’s Office concluded his press release with the following:

“The City is committed, as it always has been, to transparency and improving its Housing processes.” Really?

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/26/2021

1550 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.