What the State of Texas must do to fix the Hurricane rebuilding plan (and what we plan to do to make sure it does)

People have asked me what we want from the Texas CDBG Disaster Rebuilding Plan that we have criticized and that HUD has asked the Governor to revise.

The complete answer lies in the extensive comments that we have submitted on repeated occasions to the State of Texas and in our complaints to HUD.

Here is a summary of what we want:

  1. Funds to be prioritized to help Texas families rebuild their homes.
  2. Both housing and infrastructure programs to principally benefit low and moderate income persons.
  3. Low income people, people with disabilities, people with children and people of color to have equal access to the funds in proportion to their needs.
  4. Funds allocated and programs designed to achieve fair housing opportunities for persons with disabilities, families with children and people of color by providing desegregated housing options.
  5. Allocate funds geographically based on the actual rebuilding needs between regions of the state.
  6. Instead of holding meaningless public hearings and asking for HUD approval before a plan is developed, tell the public what the state and local governments plan to spend the money on. Make clear who will qualify for rebuilding help and who will not. Then give citizens a chance to say whether what their government is proposing to spend money on is the right thing.

There should not be controversy over any of these requests since they are explicitly required under the federal laws that govern CDBG disaster rebuilding funds. We have been asking the State unsuccessfully to follow the law in this regard for over a year, to no avail. There is no reason for surprise that HUD has rejected a plan that fails in each regard.

We supported the Governor’s Round 2 funding plan for Hurricane Rita because it had the potential to achieve these things. We opposed the Texas Hurricane Ike/Dolly CDBG rebuilding plan because that plan would have prevented these things from happening.

HUD agreed with us.

What does the State of Texas need to do in preparing a revised plan for CDBG funded rebuilding for Hurricanes Ike and Dolly? I cannot list all the aspects of a plan here, but let me mention a few highlights.

  • Step back, evaluate and design a plan to affirmatively further fair housing. This means making sure that the state and local government organizations administering the funds understand what the existing impediments to fair housing are and design programs to overcome those barriers in both the housing and infrastructure programs. This includes giving people options to move to housing near better schools, job opportunities, communities with lower crime rates and areas not subject to environmental hazards such as flooding. It also means to allocate enough of the available funds to housing programs so that desegregated housing opportunities can be created.
  • Prioritize the needs of Texas families by making at a minimum of 65 percent of all the Ike/Dolly rebuilding funds available for housing repairs and rebuilding.
  • Prioritize public infrastructure funds so that at least 50 percent is used to address the community development needs of low and moderate income persons.
  • Design programs that reach out to and serve people with extremely low incomes, people of color and people with disabilities and institute systems to ensure that these people receive assistance in proportion to their numbers in the population of people who cannot rebuild without public assistance.
  • Revise the regional allocation formula to make funds available based on actual damages that homes and businesses suffered in the hurricanes instead of allocating the money to cities and counties based on the State’s flawed “weather model”. It makes no sense to divert rebuilding funds away from communities where homes and businesses were destroyed to allocate funds to pasture land that got a lot of wind and rain. Yet, this is what the plan Texas submitted to HUD did.
  • Once this is done, create a plan that tells citizens how their government agencies propose to spend the funds, who will qualify for assistance and what portion of those in need will get help. Then hold public hearings, listen to citizens and consider their concerns. Only then send the plan to HUD for approval.

In sum, all we want is for the State of Texas to follow the law.

As for what we intend to do going forward, let me be clear about that as well.

We intend to monitor the programs the state proposes and challenge spending priorities and programs that fail to comply with statutory requirements. We will enlist the aid of local organizations and citizens to assess and monitor the disaster rebuilding programs. When we see something that does not comply with the law, we will bring that matter to the attention of the responsible state officials and then to the federal government and finally pursue the problems in court if no action is taken.

I will point out that bringing these matters up the chain of responsibility has been what we always do. We did not bring our concerns about the Ike/Dolly plan to HUD until we directed extensive statements of concerns to the State of Texas that were not acted upon.

We know we cannot monitor $3 billion in spending across a large part of Texas on our own. That is why we are establishing the Texas Disaster Accountability Project.

The Texas Disaster Accountability Project website will be online in a few weeks. We will enlist citizens impacted by the disasters to ensure Texas spends the federal grant in compliance with federal law and in furtherance of the needs of disaster survivors. We will monitor whether public funds are used to further fair housing and will also ensure that public works grants the State and the local governments claim will benefit people with low and moderate incomes (LMI) actually benefit those most in need from the disaster.

If a project does not claim to benefit low and moderate income persons then it must either aid in the prevention or elimination of slums or blight, or meet other urgent community development needs because existing conditions pose a serious and immediate threat to the health and welfare of the community where other financial resources are not available. We will monitor government spending to make sure that the spending meets these standards.

Using the model established for citizen accountability in the expenditure of funds under the federal Economic Stimulus Programs at http://www.recovery.gov (without the PR spin), we will make available an on-line database of the details of all Texas disaster recovery CDBG grants. This will allow the public to learn about, monitor and direct their appropriate concerns about projects happening in their local communities. Through the Disaster Accountability Project, we will make public all findings of its analysis and help citizens to report any abuses of spending that they witness in their communities to appropriate state and federal government officials.

The bottom line is that we want to ensure that the national objective of helping people with low and moderate incomes, people of color and people with disabilities recover from disaster comes to fruition in Texas. The law requires that the process of recovery should further fair and affordable housing and provide community development projects to those most vulnerable to the destruction caused by disaster. The Texas Disaster Accountability Project will connect citizens, advocates and government to make sure that this objective becomes a reality.