A failed housing program will always come back and bite the responsible entity

One had to feel sorry for Michael Gerber Thursday morning.

Appearing before a subcommittee of the Texas House Appropriations Committee he was forced to listen as as the Legislators were presented a state auditor’s report excoriating the failure of  the state’s initial efforts to provide housing assistance to victims of Hurricane Rita. House members were clearly shocked and outraged over the failures of the program in its early days.

Before Gerber even had a chance to present his budget request or make a case for the real successes the department has achieved over the past several years he was forced to make excuses for the debacle of the State’s initial efforts to provide housing assistance through contracts with the Councils of Governments (COGs).  The state auditor reconted in painful detail how that program was marred by unconscionable delays and poor performance.

The decision to allocate funds through the COGs was not TDHCA’s but the governor’s. It reflected a misplaced desire to transfer authority from the state to “local officials who are closer to the problem”. Tragically, it soon became apparent that those local officials, who had never run a housing program before, flat-out lacked the capacity to carry out a major disaster relief program. The poor performance cited in the state auditor’s reports was largely the poor performance of the COGs and not the state housing agency. Three years later these contracts continue to limp toward a conclusion that has seen the once lofty housing goals of the COGs reduced to a fraction of their original size.

But that didn’t matter. In the end the state housing agency bore the blame.

And despite the fact that it seems unfair, someone in state government has to be held accountable for this failure because the tragic fact is that no lesson has been learned.

The failure of the modest $40 million housing rehabilitation and reconstruction program for Hurricane Rita victims will now be magnified enormously as Governor Perry again has chosen to turn over the funds and attempt to pass off the State’s responsibility for administering disaster relief funds to the same councils of government who failed to successfully administer the first round of disaster relief.

Two years from now, the failures, the recriminations and the audits recounting the next round of disaster relief housing programs will be replayed once again before the same legislative committees. At some point the leadership of our state will learn that it cannot dodge the responsibilities of spending and accounting for federal funds by passing those funds to those who have proven themselves to be incapable of responsibly administering them. By providing the State of Texas $1.3 billion of hurricane relief money for the victims of Hurricanes Ike and Dolly the federal government made the State the responsible administrative entity.

As President Truman said the buck stops here. The governor can try to pass the buck. But when results are assessed and judgements rendered it is the State of Texas that will ultimately be held accountable.