Tag Archive for: Housing and Community Development

Why You Need Flood Insurance: Houston’s Long-Shot Harvey Reimbursement Program

The City of Houston’s latest pipeline report shows that as of the start of this year, Housing and Community Development’s Harvey Recovery Program had sent reimbursement checks to 150 homeowners out of 96,410 homes flooded during Harvey (see page 15). Quite the long shot! More than 1 in 600!

Homeowner Assistance Program data reported in City’s January Pipeline Report. Note total of reimbursement checks sent.

Program Ended More than Year Ago; Some Claims Still Being Processed

The City’s Reimbursement Program ended on December 31, 2020. At that time, the City had only reimbursed 119 families for repairs they made themselves. Claims still in the pipeline at that time explain the difference between 119 and 150.

One lucky Lake-Houston-Area homeowner recently emailed me saying his family had just cashed a reimbursement check – 4.5 years after Harvey. They won their THIRD appeal!

Reimbursements Not Only Form of Assistance

To be fair, The City offers more forms of assistance than reimbursements. The City also has rehab and reconstruction programs; homebuyer programs; a multi-family program targeted at developers and more (see below). Also keep in mind that this department underwent a major reorganization last year and now has new leadership.

Houston’s HCDD Harvey Recovery home page on Jan. 4, 2022. City has not updated it for 6 weeks. Screen capture above from 2/15/22.

However, the City still has a long way to go with financial transparency. Why, for instance, are subtotals not reported in the first screen capture above for recons, rehabs and reimbursements?

Flood Insurance Your Best Bet Next Time

The long-shot odds, lengthy application processing, bureaucratic delays and uncertain outcomes all underscore the need for flood insurance. Get a flood insurance contract in place before the next big storm and store it in a safe deposit box on HIGH GROUND. Don’t wait for help that will likely never come after the storm. Remember, ordinary homeowner insurance policies do not cover flood damage.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 2/15/2022

1631 Days after Hurricane Harvey

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.

Should City Be in Disaster Relief? For One Program, It Spent $3 Million to Get $3 Thousand

One of the more alarming facts that came out of Thursday’s City Council meeting is that Houston’s Housing and Community Development is spending far more on disaster relief than it gets back in reimbursements. In the case of one program, Economic Development, the ratio between costs and reimbursements to date was actually 1100 to 1, even higher than the headline indicates ($3,596,821 spent vs. $3,260 reimbursed).

The program’s purpose: to help small businesses damaged by Harvey. But the City launched the program just this year. And four years after the storm, those who needed assistance the most have already gone out of business. Most small businesses can’t survive that long after losing essential equipment. Is this program chasing business applicants that no longer exist? It’s hard to tell without more information. (The City’s most recent pipeline report, published just yesterday, doesn’t even mention the Economic Development Program.)

Regardless, the Economic Development Program isn’t the only area where expenses seem out of whack. This raises the questions, “Should the City even be in the disaster-relief business?” And “Can others do it better?”

Disaster Relief Costs Exceed Reimbursements and Budgets in Multiple Areas

Temika Jones, the Department’s new Chief Financial Officer and Assistant Director showed the chart below as part of her presentation. She has one year on the job. Before that, she served as an auditor for a major accounting firm. Her presentation spotlighted two giant problems: Costs exceed reimbursements. And costs exceed budgets – so some may never be reimbursed.

From a Presentation by HHCD to A Joint Committee Meeting of Budget & Fiscal Affairs, and Housing and Community Affairs

In the chart above, focus on the last two columns in the Total row. They show that the City is incurring disaster relief costs that average 2.3X higher than reimbursements – across the board.

Also focus on the big red numbers at the bottom of the slide. They show budgets that have already been exceeded.

Now compare Columns 3 and 6 in Line 1. The City has already overspent its four-year budget for administration in the first year of its contract with the GLO by $1+ million. Oops. The budget was $15 million. But the City already spent $16 million and has only had draws approved for $1.2 million.

Finally, compare Columns 3 and 5 on Line 4: The Homeowner Assistance Program. The department budgeted only $8.2 million for project delivery, but has already spent $30.6 million – almost quadruple. That means they have no budget remaining to finish the program. Worse, reimbursement for $22.3 million could be in jeopardy.

City Operating Outside of Its Core Competencies

There are several reasons for the problems discussed above:

  • HUD and the GLO operate on a reimbursement basis. The City can give money to flood victims and expect reimbursement, but then have the victim’s application refused for some reason – often missing forms or incomplete data.
  • The City’s track record with successfully completing applications has not been good. Many have been kicked back because they are incomplete.
  • That’s apparently because of staffing, training, and management issues.
  • The City’s accounting systems don’t handle disaster relief programs well, so the problems lack visibility.

Disaster relief just doesn’t seem to be one of the City’s core competencies.

The City is operating waaaaay outside of its areas of expertise. Police. Fire. Water. Streets. Trash. Those are the things people expect from the City and what the City should focus on. In business, any time you tread outside of your core competencies, your costs and risks escalate exponentially. That takes money away from flood victims.

It appears that the City was so eager to get its hands on hundreds of millions of dollars in disaster relief money that no one asked whether the City even should be in that business. Or whether the City should just have let the GLO handle disaster relief – as it did so well in 48 other counties.

As of the end of last year, the GLO had reimbursed 2961 homeowners; Houston reimbursed 119.

And while the GLO reconstructed 2500 homes, the City reconstructed only 117.

Increasing the Pace, But Falling Father Behind

The City has accelerated its pace this year, but Jones’ presentation also shows that the City is still sitting on top of applications worth $114 million that have yet to be filed. That’s almost triple the previous year’s number. Meanwhile, expenses have more than tripled.

From Page 16 of Jones’ Presentation to City Council

That brings us full circle. The City’s Economic Development Program has spent more than $3 million to get $3 thousand approved. It makes one wonder whether the purpose of pursuing HUD money was to create employment in Housing and Community Development or to help flood victims.

Turfing this to the GLO could have helped many more flood victims much faster at a lower cost.

The City put a third bureaucracy between money in Washington and the flood victims who need it. Two could have done the job faster, easier, and better.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/9/2021

1502 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.

Special City Meeting Thursday At 2 PM Will Address Multi-Family Housing Flap

City of Houston called a special joint committee meeting for Thursday, October 7, at 2PM between Budget & Fiscal Affairs and Housing and Community Affairs. Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin will chair the meeting.

The agenda is scant. It entails a Housing and Community Development “Financial Update” with three speakers:

  • Keith Bynam, Deputy Director, Housing and Community Development
  • Temika Jones, Chief Financial Officer, Housing and Community Development
  • Andy Icken, Chief Development Officer, Mayor’s Office

I asked Mayor Pro Tem Martin for more detail. He replied, “Fiduciary update on City of Houston Housing, specifically CDBG and DR-17, and the status of the investigation from the City Attorney regarding his decision to bring in outside Firms and appropriate resources to ensure independence and completeness.”

Turner Vigorously Denies Allegations

The last part about the City Attorney refers to a self-investigation Mayor Sylvester Turner launched in the wake of explosive allegations by Tom McCasland, Housing and Community Development’s former director. Turner fired McCasland two weeks ago after McCasland accused the Mayor of improperly influencing the award of a housing grant. The Mayor skipped over the top seven recommendations by McCasland’s department to pick the eighth ranked project. The Mayor’s selection would have delivered one quarter of the affordable housing for basically the same price as the four projects recommended by the Department of Housing and Community Development. It just happened to turn out that the Mayor’s former law partner, Barry Barnes, is also a stakeholder in the eighth ranked project.

Turner vigorously denies any charges of impropriety and asked the City Attorney to investigate. However, the appointment of an appointed official to do the investigation was panned by the media.

Since then, the Texas General Land Office (GLO), HUD and the Harris County Attorney have each launched separate investigations. And now it appears that the City Attorney will also bow to public pressure by appointing an outside investigator.

Documents At Heart of Controversy

I spent the better part of the day reviewing complex documents in this case. I will post them below with some brief comments for those who like to refer to original source materials.

  • The 110-page contract between the GLO and City of Houston for $835 million. This is a subset of the $1.2 billion original contract that became the subject of a lawsuit between the same two parties last year. It lays out the expectations for each party, allocates totals to each program, sets performance goals for each, and lists deadlines. The Mayor signed it on Page 104.
  • A letter from the GLO to Keith Bynam, Interim Director of Housing and Community Development. It requested a review of the City’s Multi-Family Rental Program, starting no later than September 29, 2021.
  • The agenda for a review and a list of requested documents. Some of the acronyms in this may be puzzling. MQA stands for “Monitoring Quality Assurance.” MFRP stands for Multi-Family Rental Program. Page 4 lists the purpose of the review. Page 5 lists the scope. Page 11 lists the items that the City had not yet supplied as of 9/30/2021. Page 12 explains regulations that could penalize the City if it fails to provide the requested records.
  • The 40-page 2021 Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) refers to Round 3 of the Disaster Recovery (DR-17) and Multifamily Program. It lays out the ground rules and selection criteria for the controversial Clear Lake apartment complex preferred by the Mayor. This was the “report card” for companies submitting proposals. It told them how they were going to be graded – i.e., what would increase or decrease their chances of success. It includes such factors as “flood resilience,” “experience,” “project readiness,” “cost reasonableness,” “disaster-recovery construction standards,” “location relative to the floodway,” and more.

Significantly, in the last document, the City’s Chief Procurement Officer, Jerry Adams, promises, “Bid proposals will be reviewed, underwritten and scored to select awardees based on a predetermined set of criteria outlined in the NOFA.”

Is There a Contract?

Yes and No.

No, in that a contract has not been signed with the Mayor’s hand-picked developer. The developer has not been paid any money. GLO has not even received a recommendation yet as to the developer. Everything blew up on the launching pad before things got that far.

However, the GLO and HUD contend that the NOFA is a contract. It obligates the City to solicit proposals according to criteria that have been agreed to beforehand.

The documentation calls into question whether bypassing seven higher scoring proposals in favor of a lower scoring project might violate the NOFA and federal procurement process regulations.

Here are some important federal requirements listed in the Code of Federal Regulations under 2 CFR Part 200:

  • Appendix I to Part 200 – Full Text of Notice of Funding Opportunity: “The intent is to make the application process transparent so applicants can make informed decisions when preparing their applications to maximize fairness of the process.” (E. Application Review Information)
  • § 200.319 Competition: “All procurement transactions for the acquisition of property or services required under a Federal award must be conducted in a manner providing full and open competition consistent with the standards of this section and § 200.320.

Additionally, in CONTRACT NO. 21-134-000-C788 above (section 8.05, page 19), the City of Houston agreed to strictly adhere to sections 318-326 of 2 CFR Part 200.

From that perspective, there was and is a contract. As this controversy plays out, the contract question will likely play a central role. Don’t be fooled if someone says, “There was no contract.” Clarify what that means.

To View Special Meeting Thursday At 2PM

To view the Microsoft Teams Live Meeting, go to: https://tinyurl.com/JOINTMTGBFAHOU.

Presentation handouts may be available at: https://www.houstontx.gov/council/committees/bfa.html. As of this posting, no handouts were available.

This meeting will also be broadcast on HTV, the City of Houston’s Municipal Channel.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/6/2021

1499 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.

Chronicle, ABC13 Report Harris County District Attorney Opens Investigation into Mayor

The Houston Chronicle and Ted Oberg, ABC13’s investigative reporter, both filed new stories Tuesday about the controversy surrounding Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and the City’s troubled Housing and Community Development Department. The story blew up on September 22 and immediately triggered a fraud investigation by the Texas General Land Office and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. According to today’s stories, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg has also opened an investigation into the multi-family housing deal at the heart of the controversy.

Mayor Recommends Deal with 4X Less Bang for Bucknbg

Tom McCasland, the former department head, accused the Mayor in an open City Council Meeting of unduly trying to influence the outcome of a grant. The Mayor promptly fired McCasland. The deal favored by the Mayor would have sent millions of dollars in business to the Mayor’s former law partners although McCasland explicitly said he was not accusing the Mayor of fraud.

In the “what was he thinking department,” the Mayor also asserted that it was his right to award the project to the firm of his choice and overrule McCasland’s recommendation even though four times more affordable housing units could have been built for the same amount of money had Turner followed the recommendations of McCasland’s department.

Turner Unleashes Firestorm

The Chronicle reported today that an investigator from Ogg’s office was seen knocking at the door of McCasland’s home. When there was no answer, he left a business card with a neighbor. The headline read: “Harris County DA Investigating deal at center of allegations that Turner steered money to developer.”

Oberg’s segment on the evening news led off with, “Harris Co. DA asks for documents on City Hall spending, payments to Mayor’s former law partner.” Oberg said he had obtained a copy of Ogg’s request, though he did not post the document.

Ogg Investigation Reportedly Looks Back into Old Deals Too

Allegedly, the investigation is widening. Oberg’s story said, “13 Investigates has also learned the District Attorney is asking for more – and this time far more detailed information – about contracts, agreements, invoices and all available payment information related to payments to Barry Barnes and Associates in 2018 and 2019.”

Mayor Turner’s office said in a statement, “The City has received no notice of an investigation. The DA asked through an informal request for all city policies and procedures related to procurement and the letting on contracts.” The mayor denies having done anything wrong.

McCasland declined to comment, as did Ogg. “Out of fairness to all involved, we neither confirm nor deny potential investigations into any matter until and if a charge is filed,” said Dane Schiller, Ogg’s spokesperson.

In separate news, the City’s Housing Committee will reportedly hold a hearing Thursday, October 7, at 2 pm on this matter and broadcast the meeting on its internet site. The Mayor is expected to tell his side of the story at that time.

More news to follow.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/5/2021

1498 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.

Blowup Between Mayor and Housing Director Triggers Fraud Investigation over Harvey Funds

Tuesday, City of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Houston Housing and Community Development Director Tom McCasland got into a verbal brawl over alleged improprieties in the distribution of Harvey relief funds.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner photographed in February of 2020.

The trigger was the award of $15 million to build a Clear Lake multi-family housing complex in which the Mayor’s former law partner is a co-developer. (Here is the group’s full application.)

The Mayor overrode the recommendations of McCasland and his staff, who pointed out that $16.2 million could have created four times the number of affordable units in poorer neighborhoods. Those projects all scored higher in the competition for funding.

General Land Office Response

Brittany Eck, a spokesperson for the Texas General Land Office (GLO), issued a statement within hours. She said, “The GLO is looking into the serious allegations of fraud or corruption regarding projects by the City of Houston’s Harvey Multifamily Program. The GLO is responsible for ensuring all money allocated through the Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) are spent appropriately. These projects and funds are intended to be utilized to aid the greatest number of low-income Texans as possible.”

Eck continued: “As such, we will re-review all requests for funding draws allocated to the City of Houston by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The GLO will coordinate with HUD and other investigative entities to determine what actions should follow regarding these allegations. Fraud has no place in helping Texans recover from disaster.”

She concluded, “Anyone with information relating to potential fraud, waste, and/or abuse is encouraged to report it by calling 1-844-893-8937 or emailing cdr@recovery.texas.gov.”

Mayor’s Response

According to multiple news reports and a press release from the Mayor’s Office, Turner denied specific knowledge of the deal with his former law partner. He claimed there was no impropriety, that McCasland had raised no objections to the deal, and that he (Turner) had the right as Mayor to override McCasland’s objections.

The Mayor also asserted he was trying “to place affordable housing projects throughout the City…” Finally, he claimed he severed all ties with his former law partner before assuming his position as Mayor.

McCasland’s Point of View

McCasland insisted this was not the first time the Mayor’s office interfered. The Houston Chronicle, which broke the story, said “McCasland acknowledged the Mayor has the authority to overturn staff recommendations, but McCasland argued that in this case it represented a subversion of a competitive process to benefit one applicant.

McCasland said he was not alleging fraud, but said the pattern of behavior was emblematic of a broader problem in Turner’s administration, a “do-it-because-I-said-so” management style. McCasland did say that drives out public servants dedicated to integrity and breeds a “culture for corruption.”

Further, the Chronicle article quoted McCasland as saying he briefed the Mayor August 17 and again on August 24.

McCasland said the Clear Lake complex (Huntington at Bay Area) ranked 8th out of 12 proposals, and had the lowest percentage (60%) of its units reserved for low income tenants.

Here’s a 77-page document that catalogs nine months of correspondence between McCasland, MST (Mayor Sylvester Turner) and their staffs regarding the controversial project.

Note McCasland’s comments on page 4. He claims “The outcome of that process was predetermined before the funding opportunity was even issued.”

If you don’t read anything else, skip to the last page. It’s an email from McCasland to the Mayor dated September 17. In it, he summarizes all his objections to the Clear Lake deal. That would seem to contradict the Mayor’s claim that McCasland did not register his objections.

Mayor Fires McCasland

McCasland said to City Council, “I am being forced to participate in a charade that this was a competitive process, when I know it was not a competitive process. That’s the problem here and I’m being forced to ask my teammates to participate in that charade and that is not something that we can do and that is not something that we will do.”

According to those who watched the gripping testimony in City Council, it was like watching someone commit career suicide. By the end of the day, the Mayor issued a terse press release. He denied McCasland’s allegations, said he had lost confidence in McCasland, and that it was time to move on.

Why All of a Sudden?

The big question is this: Why now? McCasland and his embattled department have been under fire for years:

Coming forward when he did – as he did – almost felt like a Law & Order episode in which the DA flipped a witness with a promise of immunity. Some veteran City Hall observers felt McCasland was being unusually frank and fearless for someone at the center of such a huge mess. If there was a pattern of ethics violations, why wait years before objecting to them?

Mayor Likely Overstepped Authority

Both McCasland and the Mayor said the Mayor had the right to overturn staff decisions. But Eck pointed out the Mayor did not have the power to “rewrite” the Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) to favor one applicant; any project selected must meet federal regulations.

She said that had the City written the NOFA to favor affluent neighborhoods, and had HUD and the GLO approved it that way, there would be no problem at this point. However, the City did not do that.

From McCasland’s report and the documentation provided, it appears the City’s award went against the scoring system laid out in the published NOFA, resulting in a competition that was not full, fair and open. The result led applicants to believe their projects would be considered against one criterion when other unknown criteria were actually utilized. 

We now know the City awarded the project to a former partner of the Mayor in a high-income area…ignoring the posted and approved scoring system. In that regard, the Mayor evidently overstepped his authority.

This was not the first time the presence of the Mayor’s former partner in a deal has raised eyebrows and questions. The Houston Chronicle reported in 2018 that several city council members complained about the optics of the partner’s role as a subcontractor for a firm hired to find Harvey victims.

What Next?

The GLO has been in touch with HUD, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, Gov. Greg Abbott’s office and the Department of Public Safety, according to Eck.

KTRK’s Ted Oberg said DPS would only be involved to investigate criminal matters.

Oberg also reported Wednesday that Chris Brown, the city’s controller, said, “This week’s revelations underscore an ongoing pattern concerning procurement processes and a continued lack of transparency at City Hall.”

Brown, who audits City projects, continued, “In the past several months alone, our office has been denied procurement documents required to conduct an audit of the Strategic Procurement Department and were told to stop all work on a financial transparency project that would bring much-needed insight into the city’s spending practices. Taxpayers deserve a city government that is transparent and above reproach. Unfortunately, recent events suggest that the city is falling short of that goal.”

Posted by Bob Rehak on 9/22/2021

1485 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.

GLO Reimbursement Program Helped Rebuild 2961 Homes While Houston’s Helped Only 119

The Texas General Land Office (GLO) announced last week that it has successfully completed its Reimbursement Program from Hurricane Harvey. It was a first-of-its-kind program and concluded after providing nearly $86 million to almost 3,000 Texas homeowners. The GLO also announced that it had reconstructed its 2,500th home under its Harvey Homeowner Assistance Program.

Two Major Milestones Reached in Same Week

The two GLO disaster recovery programs are helping Texans across 48 counties (outside of Harris County and the city of Houston) whose homes were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Harvey. The two programs have now helped nearly 5,500 Texas homeowners recover from Harvey.

The GLO’s reimbursement program concluded after assisting 2,961 Texans with a total of $85,989,042 in reimbursements for out-of-pocket home repair expenses. In the same week, the GLO reached another milestone – reconstruction of 2,500 homes damaged during Harvey.

Texas General Land Office

“Every day at the General Land Office we work to help improve the lives of Texans,” said Commissioner Bush. “The GLO is proud to be setting a record pace in disaster recovery while helping thousands of Texas families rebuild their lives and their homes. The GLO continues to leverage federal dollars efficiently and effectively to help Texas families and communities rebuild and mitigate against future storms.”

Click for video

Details of Reimbursement Program

This week the Texas General Land Office completed its Homeowner Reimbursement Program (HRP) when it approved the final reimbursements for eligible homeowners.

The HRP program provided reimbursements up to $50,000 for Hurricane Harvey-impacted homeowners who used their life savings or other personal funds to pay out-of-pocket for disaster recovery repairs. The program’s efficiency yielded an additional $3 million in costs savings, which enabled the program to provide reimbursements for all applicants eligible under U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) rules for the available Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funding.

Homeowner Assistance Program Details

In the same week that the GLO successfully completed its Reimbursement Program, the GLO handed keys to a fully rebuilt home to the 2,500th Homeowner Assistance Program (HOAP) recipient. So far, approximately 4,300 HOAP applicants have been approved for assistance by the GLO. Of those, about 1,400 applications are in pre-construction (awaiting applicant approval of final design plans and permits). Four hundred more homes are currently under construction in addition to those already completed.

Before the HOAP program concludes, GLO anticipates that it will help rebuild more than 6,000 homes. It will do so using more than $1.3 billion in available Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR). The GLO will also use an additional $500 million in Community Development Block Grants for Mitigation (CDBG-MIT) funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Results Invite Comparison to City of Houston’s

The City of Houston Housing and Community Development Department updates its comparable statistics weekly.

City of Houston Housing and Community Development Department statistics as of 1.20.21

During the period that the GLO reimbursed 2961 homeowners, Houston reimbursed 119. And while the GLO reconstructed 2500 homes, the City reconstructed only 117.

Thus, the GLO was 20-25X more effective in finding and helping applicants than the City of Houston. And the GLO covered a 48-county area.

Possible Reasons for Huge Disparity

The GLO reviews City applications before forwarding them to HUD for final approval and funding. In trying to explain possible reasons for the disparity in results, a GLO spokesperson pointed to the needlessly complex structure of the City’s program.

The GLO also pointed out that many of the applications submitted by the City were incomplete and that the City’s data formatting was inconsistent.

When the GLO sent a team to Houston to help train City employees handling applications, GLO helpers were not allowed to enter City offices.

Harvey damaged more than 96,000 homes in Houston.

The City of Houston’s Housing and Community Development Department still has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 1/24/2021 based on data published by the Texas GLO and Houston Housing and Community Development

1244 Days after Hurricane Harvey

City of Houston Couldn’t Even Give Away Harvey Aid Due to Bureaucratic Bungling

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.

Had everyone just been invited to fill out an application early on, no one would have missed the deadline.

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.

Confusion Reigned

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.

The Coulter family lived in a trailer in their driveway for almost two years as they repaired their home.

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?

One observer suggested that spending less on reimbursements will let the City funnel those funds into multifamily housing instead.

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