Tag Archive for: Houston Housing and Community Development

City’s Harvey Recovery Map Shows Lake Houston Area Has Received Little Assistance

Five years after Hurricane Harvey, the City of Houston’s Harvey Recovery Map shows that in the Lake Houston Area less than 100 families have received some form of financial assistance. That’s out of 16,000 homes and 3,300 businesses that flooded in the Lake Houston Area during Harvey.

Dots represent families receiving homebuyer assistance in Kingwood and Huffman. Clicking different layers of the map reveals statistics for different programs.

Breakdown by Program

To be more precise, the map shows:

  • 9 families in Kingwood and 1 in Huffman received homebuyer assistance
  • 78 families in Kingwood and 5 in Huffman received homeowner assistance for repairs or reconstruction
  • The City has yet to report any statistics for its Economic Recovery Program for Small Businesses

A second “disaster impact” map shows that in four Kingwood Census tracts, Harvey damaged more than 70% of the homes. The percent damaged exceeded 90% in two of those.

The Houston Housing and Community Development Department’s (HCDD) Hurricane Harvey Recovery Program still has hundreds of millions of dollars left to distribute. But with the exception of the City’s Multifamily Program, most other programs continue to stutter and stumble.

Citywide Statistics Not Much Better

Of the 96,410 homes flooded in Houston during Harvey, the City has submitted 1,426 single-family files to the GLO and received approval for 1,244 (789 for repair or reimbursement, and 455 for home buying assistance). The number approved equals 1.3% of homes damaged or destroyed.

The City announced a $30 million economic development program for small businesses one year ago. But no progress reports appear on the City’s compliance website. However, the City is still accepting applications until December 31st of this year. The amount of money in the program could help up to 200 small businesses citywide. In the Lake Houston Area alone, Harvey damaged 16 times more than that. The Houston Business Journal says Houston has more than 100,000 small businesses.

Multifamily Only Bright Spot

Multifamily housing assistance is the one bright spot for HHCD. Out of the $450 million allocated to the program, the City has already spent or committed $355 million as of August 8, 2022. Seven projects have completed construction. Sixteen are under construction. Two are pending closing. And six are being underwritten.

Multifamily stats as of 8/8/22

Why the success for this one program? Corporations build multifamily complexes. Most of them can afford to hire people who pursue funding opportunities like this full time. They aren’t trying to get bids, track receipts and hold down regular jobs while repairing their homes from a disaster in their spare time.

Most of the feedback I have received is that flood victims without flood insurance who were living in travel trailers or with friends after Harvey took one of two paths. They paid for repairs out of pocket as they could afford them, or sold their homes “as is.”

Disaster relief money came too late. It had too many strings attached. And the application process was too cumbersome. Finally, the Housing and Community Development Department was too disorganized. So, I suspect the numbers will change little at this point.

Plus, the Homebuyer Assistance program has exhausted its funding and is closed. A red note at the top of the homepage of Recovery.HustonTX.gov says, “Due to … a pending decision on whether the City must return money that should go toward these critical programs and resources, we are no longer processing applications.” If more funding becomes available, those who previously applied will not be given preference.

A second red note says, “At this time, the City of Houston will continue assisting homeowners whose repairs and reconstructions were approved by the GLO prior to October 6, 2020. All other repair and reconstruction applications, including those approved after October 6, 2020, will be transferred to the GLO to complete the process.”

A final note says, “We appreciate your patience.”

Anything to Help Citizens

The good news: “The City of Houston Housing and Community Development Department is excited to announce beginning August 21st, we will be hosting open community office hours!” Every Wednesday, 1-4PM. “Walk-ins welcome, no appointment required!” If you still wish to apply.

Graphic on City’s Recovery Transparency Page.

Whoop-de-doo! Three hours a week! Five years after Harvey! Buried on a page that no one except reporters would take the time to find (at the bottom of the Transparency Page under the About Page). That’s really going above and beyond the call of duty to help citizens.

One can only wonder whether four hours a week – or putting the open-house notice on the home page – would help Houston recover faster.

Only one thing is certain: flood insurance beats the hope of disaster relief assistance.

To review the City’s July 2022 pipeline report that shows progress to date in several programs by stages, click here.

To review the compliance graphics for the City’s programs, click here.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 8/14/22

1811 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.

Top Stories of 2021 in Review

Below are my personal picks for the top flood-mitigation stories of 2021.

The Fight for Funding

In 2019, Commissioners Court established “equity” guidelines that prioritized projects in Low-to-Moderate Income watersheds. Then this year:

Still no word from HUD on a possible direct allocation of $750 million. We may hear in January.

To help you follow this story, I make quarterly FOIA requests for Harris County Flood Control District spending and post the analyses on a dedicated funding page.

Sand-Mining Best Management Practices

Activists led by the Lake Houston Area Flood Prevention Initiative and the Bayou Land Conservancy petitioned the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to establish best management practices for sand mines in the San Jacinto watershed. We didn’t get everything we wanted, but we got a vast improvement over what we had. And the new BMPs may help reduce erosion that contributes to future floods in this area.

West Fork Sand Mine illustrates need for vegetative controls to reduce erosion.

Relentless Development

Fueled by low interest rates and flight from city crowds during Covid, suburban and rural development surged in 2021. Flood-mitigation felt like an afterthought in many developments. We saw that with Colony Ridge in Liberty County. Colony Ridge clearcut wetlands, paved over floodplains and ignored county regs designed to reduce erosion.

In the Kingwood Area, the Laurel Springs RV resort took advantage of a grandfathering clause in permitting to build a detention pond one-half the size of current requirements. These represent just two examples of many.

The Laurel Springs RV Resort got its detention pond approved one day before stiffer regs went into effect.

After Harvey, we saw how such practices made flooding worse. How soon we forget!

Houston Housing and Community Development Meltdown

Houston’s Housing and Community Development Department, which was responsible for distributing more than a billion dollars in Harvey disaster relief funds, came unglued again this year. Last year, it sued the Texas General Land Office to keep money it couldn’t give away. This year, the Department’s Director publicly denounced the Mayor of Houston for trying to steer multi-family housing subsidies to the Mayor’s former law partner. The Mayor claimed ignorance of the partner’s involvement and announced a City Attorney investigation which never materialized.

Meanwhile, flood victims were victimized a second time. Bureaucratic bungling denied aid to people who deserved it.

World War II And Lake Houston Gates

May 9, 2021, was 1349 days after Hurricane Harvey ravaged Texas and the Gulf Coast. That’s the number of days it took the US and its allies to win World War II. But during that time we’ve had few victories in the fight against future flooding in the Lake Houston Area with the exception of dredging, So far, we’ve mainly completed studies. And many of those are still in the works.

For instance, the City of Houston has been studying ways to increase the release capacity of the Lake Houston Dam. Right now, the release capacity is one-fifteenth that of the gates on Lake Conroe. That makes it difficult to shed water quickly before and during floods. FEMA gave the City money to study the problem, but is still finalizing recommendations. The City hopes to make an announcement in January.


The Lake Conroe Association had its lawsuit against the SJRA thrown out of court…with prejudice. The LCA hoped to prohibit the SJRA’s policy of seasonal lake lowering, which was designed to help protect the Lake Houston Area until other flood mitigation efforts could be put in place.

The Texas Attorney General is still suing the Triple PG Sand Mine in Porter on behalf of the TCEQ. There has been little movement on the case in the last 18 months. The mine’s owner changed legal counsel in July 2020. A TCEQ representative says the AG has not given up. The two sides are still in discovery.

Approximately 1700 homeowners in the Lake Houston Area sued sand mines for contributing to flooding during Harvey. The cases were consolidated in the 281st Harris County District Court under Judge Sylvia Matthews. She recently set deadlines in the first half of next year for motions, depositions, joinder, expert witness testimony and more. The case is known as “Harvey Sand Litigation.”

Various lawsuits against the SJRA for flooding during Harvey are still working their way through the legal system.

Kingwood residents reached a settlement with Perry Homes, its subsidiaries and contractors this year over two floods that damaged hundreds of homes in Elm Grove and North Kingwood Forest during 2019. The incidents had to do with development of Woodridge Village, just across the Harris/Montgomery County line.

Woodridge Village

Harris County Flood Control District purchased Woodridge Village from Perry Homes in February this year and hired a contractor to begin doubling the current floodwater-detention capacity on the site. When complete, the additional capacity will help protect homes in Elm Grove, North Kingwood Forest and downstream along Taylor Gully.

Expansion of Dredging

After three and a half years of dredging in the San Jacinto West Fork, dredging has now moved to the East Fork. State Representative Dan Huberty secured $50 million earlier this year to extend the dredging program to other inlets around Lake Houston in the future.

East Fork Dredging. Photographed in early December between Huffman and Royal Shores in Kingwood. Looking south toward Lake Houston.

Bens Branch and Taylor Gully Cleanouts

In Kingwood, HCFCD finished excavating both Bens Branch and Taylor Gully to help restore their conveyance. Through gradual sediment built up, both had been gradually reduced to a 2-year level of service in places. That means they would come out of their banks after a 2-year rain.

Final phase of Bens Branch maintenance between Kingwood Drive and Rocky Woods. Note Kingwood High School in upper right.


Years of fighting over subsidence between the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District and Groundwater Management Area 14 came to a head earlier this year. LSGCD fought any mention of subsidence in Desired Future Conditions (DFCs) for Montgomery County. GMA-14 wanted to include it, but finally recommended allowing each groundwater conservation district to make a subsidence measure optional. Unlimited groundwater pumping in southern Montgomery County could tilt Lake Houston toward homes at the northern end of the lake. That’s because subsidence would be greater there than at the Lake Houston Dam by TWO FEET.

GMA-14 will take a final vote on January 5 on the final DFCs. You still have time to protest.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/31/2021

1585 Days since Hurricane Harvey

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.

New GLO Review Slams Houston on Five Counts Relating to Harvey Relief

Two months ago, the Texas General Land Office (GLO) launched a review of Houston’s Housing and Community Development Department (HHCD) after Mayor Sylvester Turner allegedly tried to steer a $14 million affordable-housing contract using HUD money toward his former law partner. The GLO review, released Tuesday, notes both findings and corrective actions required of Houston to ensure a fair, open, and competitive award process in the future.

The GLO review criticized HHCD for five major problems listed below. The City has until December 10, 2021, to address the GLO review’s findings by delivering a Corrective Action Plan. Houston then has another 90 days to implement the plan. Hanging in the wind: the fate of the City’s entire multi-family rental program, Harvey multi-family relief projects in the pipeline, and millions of dollars in past awards now being questioned.

Image courtesy of HUD. For more on the need for affordable housing, click here.

The GLO review was triggered on September 22 when the HHCD’s former Director Tom McCasland accused the Mayor during a City Council meeting of overriding his department’s recommendations. The Mayor recommended a project that would have benefited his former law partner. McCasland alleged that his department’s recommendations could have built four times the amount of affordable housing units in poorer neighborhoods for roughly the same amount of money. McCasland also alleged that he was being forced to participate in what he called a “charade of a competitive process.” The Mayor promptly fired McCasland, leading to multiple investigations. The GLO review was just one.

Summary of Five Main Findings

The GLO never uses the word “charade” in its findings, but one could easily infer a charade from their substance.

The GLO’s objective was to evaluate whether the City had adequate controls in place to meet program and contract requirements for the allocation of $450,050,472. At a high level, the five findings released on Tuesday 11/23/21 require the City to:

  1. Strengthen NOFA/RFP Issuances – GLO found inconsistencies among the way NOFA/RFPs (Notice of Funding Availability/Request for Proposals) were issued, evaluated and scored. Inconsistencies included program content; threshold criteria; and award processes.
  2. Strengthen the NOFA/RFP Scoring Method – GLO found the City does not have controls in place to ensure it follows criteria for awarding projects.
  3. Ensure Documentation Supports Project Awards – GLO found that Houston does not document subjective criteria used by HHCD and the Mayor’s office when evaluating applications.
  4. Strengthen Conflicts-of-Interest Provisions – GLO found the City does not have internal controls that screen out Conflicts of Interest.
  5. Produce Documentation Justifying Award Recommendations – GLO found inconsistencies between grant requirements and recommendations. Subjective factors – not based on the competitive process – were often used to recommend projects without explanation.

Full Text of Findings and Exhibits

Here is the GLO’s entire 11-page letter to HHCD’s Interim Director Keith Bynam, and three exhibits referenced in the letter:

  • Exhibit 1 – Scoring results for four NOFAs
  • Exhibit 2 – A memo to the Interim Director from an Assistant Director attempting to justify the Mayor’s intervention on a low scoring project
  • Exhibit 3 – Examples of HHCD responses to appeals from developers. The responses do not document specifics for rejections.

If you read nothing else, make sure you see Page 1 of Exhibit 1. It recommended making an award to one project that 25 other projects outscored. Those 25 higher scoring projects were either wait-listed or not recommended. Hmmmm!

Egregious Examples of Specifics Cited in GLO Report

Here are some of the more serious infractions that support the five major findings.

GLO complained about Houston’s lack of consistency, accuracy and fairness. For instance:

  • Data for 40% of tested applications was entered incorrectly, resulting in incorrect scoring.
  • Submission deadlines for some RFPs were shortened in a way that excluded some applications and diminished the quality of others. This resulted in competitive disadvantage for some applicants and presumably an advantage for others.
  • Conflict of interest disclosures were excluded from some rounds of funding.
  • 9 of 12 applications in two other rounds of funding did not have conflict of interest forms actually signed by applicants or co-applicants.
  • Some NOFAs contained language giving the Mayor’s office the right to approve or deny applications in accordance with the Mayor’s priorities, but the Mayor was not required to explain why.
  • The City frequently did not give specific reasons for approving or denying a grant.

ABC13’s Ted Oberg ran this story Tuesday night about the millions of dollars now at risk for poor people who still need help after Harvey.

Here is the Mayor’s response to the charges in GLO review.

Posted by Bob Rehak on November 24, 2021

1548 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.

Flood Digest: Updates on TWDB Grants, Affordable Housing Investigations, Subsidence

Below are updates on three items recently in the news: Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) Grants, Affordable Housing Investigations, and Subsidence.

Texas Water Development Board Grants Affecting Houston Region

Last week, I posted a story about flood mitigation assistance grants being considered by the TWDB. The Houston region qualified for eight and the TWDB approved them all…unanimously. However, the checks aren’t in the mail yet.

TWDB approved the following subject to FEMA final approval:

  • 32 structures in Houston, Jersey Village, Pearland and Taylor Lake Village will receive financial assistance for elevating structures.
  • 1421 structures in Bear Creek Village (near Addicks Reservoir and Highway 6) will see their drainage improved by Harris County Flood Control District HCFCD).
  • 61 repetitive loss structures will be bought out by HCFCD.
  • 1 hotel with a severe repetitive loss history dating back to 1979 will also be bought out by HCFCD.
  • 40 repetitive-loss structures in Montgomery County will also be bought out.

FEMA requested more information for further review on each project. So when/if FEMA gives final approval to each of the above, they should be good to go. That usually happens by January.

Texas projects considered for further review by FEMA

Clear Lake Apartment Complex Recommended by Mayor

On September 21, the former director of Houston’s Housing and Community Development Department (HCDD) turned whistleblower and accused the mayor of recommending a multi-family housing deal in Clear Lake that was not in taxpayers’ best interests. It turns out the Mayor’s former law partner would have benefited by $15 million from the deal, but the department’s recommendations would have provided four times more affordable housing for essentially the same amount of money.

That ignited a firestorm in the media and on City Council. HUD, GLO, the County Attorney, and the City Attorney (with the help of two US Attorneys) and City Council are all investigating.

In the face of this withering onslaught, the Houston Chronicle today reported that the Mayor has dropped his recommendation to back his former law partner’s project in Clear Lake. The Mayor said he didn’t want it to become a “distraction.”

However, getting the genie back in the bottle may not be that simple. Since the Clear Lake deal imploded on September 22, 2021, more allegations of financial mismanagement arose in City Council last week.

Also this afternoon, investigative journalist Wayne Dolcefino issued a press release about a Federal lawsuit he filed. It alleges a cover-up at the Houston Housing Authority on other housing deals that appear to be linked to the same players Tom McCasland and the Mayor.

This has the stink of Watergate about it.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner at Kingwood’s last town hall meeting in October of 2018.

GMA-14 Makes Subsidence DFC Optional

For several years now, the state’s Groundwater Management Area 14 (GMA-14) in southeast Texas has struggled to define Desired Future Conditions (DFCs). These are long-term goals that address groundwater conservation and the maximum amount of subsidence allowable.

The Lonestar Groundwater Conservation District has denied subsidence exists in Montgomery County and stonewalled efforts to include a subsidence metric in DFCs.

Going into a board meeting last week, GMA 14 had proposed DFCs that read:

In each county in GMA 14, no less than 70 percent median available drawdown remaining in 2080 and no more than an average of 1.0 additional foot of subsidence between 2009 and 2080.

Initial DFCs

However, days before the final vote on this statement, State Senator Robert Nichols, intervened. He wrote a letter to each of GMA-14’s groundwater conservation district leaders “urging” them to make the subsidence metric optional. At that point, the debate ended. The final DFCs adopted by GMA-14 read:

In each county in Groundwater Management Area 14, no less than 70 percent median available drawdown remaining in 2080 or no more than an average of 1.0 additional foot of subsidence between 2009 and 2080. 

Final DFCs

This “opt-out option” defeats the purpose of even having a GMA and a subsidence metric.

This revised statement was quietly approved on October 5, 2021. At its January 5, 2022, meeting, GMA-14 will approve the report that accompanies the DFCs when they are submitted to the TDWB.

Of the five groundwater conservation districts in GMA-14, four voted for the new DFCs and one abstained. The new DFCs will likely be challenged in court by areas threatened by subsidence.

Makeup of Groundwater Management Area 14

Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/11/2021

1504 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.

How to Speed Up Flood Assistance

Since Harvey, Houston’s Housing and Community Development Department has been criticized severely by HUD, the GLO, media, and flood victims alike for poor performance and non-performance in flood assistance efforts. Thursday, Keith Bynam, the Interim Director of the Department, and Temika Jones, the Department’s Assistant Director and Chief Financial Officer, informed city council members about other issues: severe and repeated budget overages in their department.

Their explosive testimony drew sharp questions and raised many more about the department’s management and oversight by the City.

Eight Main Recommendation to Improve Disaster Assistance

Bynam and Jones never did get to finish their presentation. Unfortunately, recommendations on how to fix the department’s problems were at the end. Arguably, Pages 22 and 23 should have been the focus of their presentation.

Bynam and Jones made eight recommendations as part of their Corrective Action Plan for flood assistance.

  1. Reduce future Admin spending and forecast Admin dollars needed to execute programs.
  2. Restructure reporting lines to other city departments in consultation with Central HR.
  3. Re-evaluate all staffing decisions approved by the former director, Tom McCasland.
  4. Align future expenditures with program spending.
  5. Implement strike teams to focus on GLO submissions
  6. Timely submission of draw requests to GLO (within 90 business days)
  7. Continue operating successful programs (such as Multifamily, Public Services)
  8. Ensure new CDBG-DR 2017 (Harvey) programs are implemented successfully (Economic Development, Small Rental, Single Family)

Flood Assistance: A Multi-level Problem

The meeting yesterday focused on fixing the negative financial impact to the City. But the impact to flood victims caught up in this bureaucratic miasma needs to be considered simultaneously.

During my business career, I found it hard to go wrong if you structured your organization around clients’ needs. In this case, there are two sets of clients: the GLO and HUD on one hand. And flood victims on the other. Both have one primary need: speed.

  • Some victims are still struggling to fix their homes or recover from the financial devastation caused by Harvey.
  • The GLO needs to use the money appropriated by Congress and HUD or lose it when program deadlines expire.

One program (Home Repair) has already expired. And 1501 days out from Hurricane Harvey, hundreds of millions in funds remain to be distributed – despite overspending on administrative expenses, such as employee salaries and computer expenses, by 400% last year.

City Council needs to look at the flood assistance from their clients’ perspectives and start there. How can they speed up the assistance?

Insights from Former Employees, the GLO, and Flood Victims

Not wanting to rely solely on Bynam and Jones recommendations, I also talked to former employees of the department, the GLO, as well as flood victims who described several problems:

  • An accounting system that can’t recognize liabilities incurred on behalf of the federal government in reimbursement programs
  • Featherbedding (keeping and protecting political friends on a payroll, often by stretching out work)
  • Personnel with lack of experience who don’t know what to do
  • Inadequate management and training
  • Refusing help from the GLO
  • Turnover in managerial ranks (five managers in the Home Repair program alone since Harvey, according to Bynam)
  • No one from the Mayor on down ever asking the questions, such as “Why are we in this business? Do we want to stay in it?”

It’s amazing how closely these comments map back to the recommendations made by Bynam and Jones. The two lists closely parallel each other, though they are not identical.

Ten People to Pay Two Bills?

In her testimony yesterday, Ms. Jones, who joined the department a year ago, said that, shortly after arriving, she discovered that, “We had 10 people paying bills in accounts payable and two people requesting reimbursements. That change was made immediately.” She said, “The GLO compliments us at least weekly on the progress we are making, but we have a long way to go.”

Friends in the media who have covered the department for decades describe persistent problems that previous mayors and city councils found convenient to ignore.

I applaud Jones and Bynam for having the courage to air dirty laundry in public. That is the only way these problems will ever get fixed. Departments like Housing and Community Development cannot become fiefdoms for featherbedding, or as one former employee put it “a receptacle for misfits and castoffs from other departments.”

Some Unsolicited Advice: Restructure Around “The Right Five”

I had a highly successful information technology (IT) client for 30 years that did government as well as private-sector work. They believed that for their clients to be successful, IT systems had to deliver the “right five”:

  • The right information
  • In the right form
  • For the right people
  • In the right place
  • At the right time

Example: a successful airline must juggle equipment availability, maintenance, reservations, pricing, baggage, seating, staffing, gate availability, check-in, air traffic control, weather, seating and other variables…for each flight, thousands of times a day.

For the system to work efficiently, customers, employees, and vendors see only what they need, when they need it, where they need it, in a form that lets them do the task at hand. Software guides them through each step.

It’s safe to say that Houston’s Housing and Community Development Department does not have “the right five.” I say that based on the testimony we heard yesterday, from City Council reactions, from former employees, and from the persistent criticisms offered by HUD, the GLO, and flood victims.

Checking the “Flight Status” of Flood Applications

Neither the City Controller, City Council, Mayor, HUD, GLO, the Department, nor flood victims can tell the “flight status” of pending applications at a glance. That’s how you get an economic development plan where the City has spent $3.6 million to get $3,260 of aid approved (see line 3, page 14). That needs fixing.

And part of the fix will require managing the information so that low-wage employees can perform their individual roles in a very complex process.

The whole notion of “trying” to file paperwork within 90 business days feels repugnant to me. But with the “right five,” filing those applications in real time with a fraction of the people could happen automatically.

If the City were a private business, it would not be trying to figure out how to timely file flood assistance applications right now. It would be filing for bankruptcy. We seriously need to fix this.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/8/2021

1501 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.

Bombshells in Council Meeting Raise More and Bigger Questions about Housing and Community Development

Weeks ago, Mayor Sylvester Turner said he would provide a complete explanation for allegations of interference in a $15 million contract that would have benefitted his former business partner. Many people thought that would happen today at a joint meeting between the Budget & Fiscal Affairs and Housing & Community Development Committees. But it didn’t.

The Mayor didn’t appear. His representative didn’t speak. And Tom McCasland, the fired director of Housing & Community Development wasn’t even invited. Instead of explanations, we got more bombshells and even bigger, more troubling questions that pointed to what Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin called “a train wreck” that was years in the making.

The Longest Three Hours Ever

Keith Bynam, the department’s Interim Director, and Temika Jones, Assistant Director and Chief Financial Officer (also a former auditor) sat in the hot seats for three hours. They gave a presentation about the department’s finances.

The meeting almost ended before it started. Council members received the presentation from Bynam and Jones less than an hour before the start of the meeting. The members had so little time to prepare that several wanted to postpone. Based on their initial review, some also called the presentation a “diversion.” The acrimonious discussion about whether to adjourn the meeting consumed the first 33 minutes and set the tone for the rest of the day. One council member, Mike Knox, walked out.

While the presentation was certainly not what council members expected, it also wasn’t a “diversion.” It more closely resembled open heart surgery on an entire city department in front of live TV…using hand grenades instead of scalpels.

Most of the presentation focused on budget shortfalls in the department, and who knew what about those shortfalls when.

Sadly, Bynam and Jones had planned to talk about a “corrective action plan” for the department, but never got to their recommendations because of persistent interruptions from council members whose jaws were scraping the floor.

At the end of the meeting, the City Attorney said the internal investigation that the Mayor assigned to him had been turfed to outside counsel – former US attorneys. He knows a hot potato when he sees one!

If this presentation was an attempt to support the mayor (who was reportedly at an Astros game), it backfired. Bynam and Jones spent half their time fielding questions from council members about why they didn’t turn whistleblower years ago. They claimed: 1) that they repeatedly raised spending issues with McCasland, 2) that McCasland supposedly discussed them with the Mayor, and 3) that they weren’t really sure if he ever did.

Bombshell Revelations

Among the bombshells:

  • The department’s annual administrative budget for ongoing HUD Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) programs (separate from Harvey programs) went over budget during the last fiscal year by 175%. It budgeted $3,987,480 and spent $11,084,775.
  • TIRZ (tax increment reinvestment zone) money made up the difference, but by law TIRZ money is supposed to be spent within the zone where the tax increment is collected.
  • During the last 5 fiscal years combined, the department overspent its admin budget by 143%. It budgeted $21,088,015 and spent $51,322,491 on admin.
  • Admin expenses for the Harvey CDBG fund exceeded the four-year budget of the program by 14% in the first year of the program.
  • For the department’s Homeowner Assistance Program (HoAP), the department incurred $70 million in expenses as of the end of the third quarter, but has only had reimbursements approved and/or paid that totaled $12,475,085. They missed that one by almost 6X. As a result, they are now $22 million short in their project delivery funds.
  • Only one of nine programs in the Harvey fund is on track to meet its performance benchmarks by the end of the year.
  • The former director’s wife owns a company that was doing business with the department to reduce “duplication of benefit” (DOB) gaps for HoAP applicants. But the company actually increased the gap for each applicant, according to the GLO. To cover the difference, the department will have to reduce each homeowner reimbursement request.
  • The GLO capped Relocation Assistance at $6,000 per applicant, but the department is spending $8 to 10K.
  • Change orders were not accounted for properly.

Virtually all city council members appeared to be surprised by the revelations.

12 Bigger Questions Remain

Compared to his role in one dubious financial transaction, Mayor Turner now has many bigger questions to answer.

  1. Did the Mayor provide proper oversight to the Housing and Community Development Department?
  2. Why did he continue to back McCasland when management issues arose years ago? HUD and the GLO had warned him. The problems were widely reported in the media.
  3. Are the numbers reported today accurate and complete, or are there more surprises waiting?
  4. How could admin expenses swell so much? Previous GLO and HUD audits suggested that the department was understaffed. And McCasland claims he held admin expenses below 13%. And typically, first-year admin startup costs for a new program run about 20-30% of the total allocated for the entire program. They don’t consume 4+ years of budget in one year.
  5. Does the City’s accounting software need improvement? The City doesn’t even recognize liabilities incurred to HUD and the GLO. It only covers the general fund.
  6. Were these numbers being timely reported to the Mayor? Bynam and Jones say they reported them to McCasland every month, and that McCasland supposedly discussed them with the Mayor. But Bynam and Jones claim McCasland kept them out of meetings with the Mayor. So they don’t know what McCasland told the Mayor.
  7. Did McCasland make the Mayor aware of the overages?
  8. What is McCasland’s side of the story?
  9. How is it possible that the City Controller was writing checks and these overages did not show up on a balance sheet?
  10. The City’s general fund advances cash to complete projects in anticipation of reimbursements from the GLO once the work is approved. Are there audited financials that show more detail on how these funds were spent AND additional liabilities which may be accruing?
  11. McCasland says he sent a memo to the Mayor, the Housing Committee and every City Council Member that disclosed the role his wife played. Where is that memo?
  12. Why did the City sue the GLO to keep these programs last year if they were losing so much money?

Rule #1

Rule #1 in business is that when you’re in a hole, stop digging. Evidently, NO ONE at the City got that memo.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/7/2021

1500 Days after 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.