How did the state come to prioritize some Harvey-affected areas over others?

The state’s draft action plan for spending $57.8 million in federal disaster recovery funds was released last Thursday. The Texas General Land Office, which oversees the administration of the federal funds, has given the public 14 days to comment. Every day until Feb. 1, we’ll be asking fundamental questions about the action plan as we draft our own comments to the GLO to advocate for equitable disaster recovery for all Hurricane Harvey survivors. 

Of the federal disaster recovery dollars that Texas has plans for ($57.8 million at this point) the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has required that 80 percent go to help Harris County to address unmet housing need.

This is because, according to FEMA data, Harris County is the “most impacted and distressed area” after Hurricane Harvey struck, especially when you account for the number of households that applied for FEMA assistance and those households with unmet housing needs. This seems correct given Harris County has 26,669 housing units with “unmet need” and contains 46.5 percent of the housing units damaged by Hurricane Harvey.

But what should the State do with the remaining 20 percent or about $11 million available for housing disaster repairs? To be fair the State would either spread the remaining funds across all the other areas or pick the next most impacted counties. But, that is not what the Texas General Land Office (GLO) is proposing.

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The GLO’s plan identifies Aransas, Nueces and Refugio counties as the “next most impacted and distress counties” that will receive the rest of the federal funds in this allocation. It is important to keep in mind the State expects to receive additional Community Development Block Grant funds for disaster recovery — at least $5 billion that has been announced by HUD. But five months after the hurricane, survivors in all of the impacted counties are crying out for these first available funds now.

We do not take issue with the state fairly and transparently appropriating money to any community ravaged by the August hurricane. All communities — all survivors — deserve their fair share of these federal dollars and support from the State to recover quickly and fully.

However, the GLO in the Action Plan fails to provide methodology or access to the data used to make its decision to award all of the remaining funds to Aransas, Nueces and Refugio counties. And, the current data available to the public indicates that while these three counties were severely impacted, they are not near the top of the list for greatest unmet housing need or number of structures damaged.

Some caveats about the data must be noted. The data above likely undercounts those who had not been inspected at the time of the release, and we’ve shown in other data that the southern regions have had lower inspection rates than other areas. Yet, the above data is the ONLY public data on unmet need, and though the state may be using more sophisticated data and analyses that may show why areas of lower unmet need are prioritized, they haven’t made these available.

But, consider the case for Jefferson County, home to Beaumont and Port Arthur. It ranks second in HUD’s analysis of unmet housing need behind Harris County. Jefferson County and the other top counties with unmet housing needs are not mentioned at all in the State’s Action Plan. They will have to wait for future releases of federal funds to help their survivors.

The action plan hints at possible reasons for the GLO allocating Aransas, Nueces and Refugio counties the $11 million:

  • The unemployment rates in Aransas and Refugio counties ticked up about two or three percentage points each;
  • These three counties had a high number of business loans after Hurricane Harvey;
  • The storm made landfall in or near these counties;
  • And tourism, a vital component of the three counties’ economy has been disrupted in this area.

It is also curious how the state intends to spend the $57.8 million.

Screen Shot 2018-01-26 at 2.41.38 PMIn Aransas, Nueces and Refugio counties,  $10.8 million will be used to rehabilitate and reconstruct affordable multi-family housing projects. This despite the lower number of damaged units compared with other counties. These counties rank 10th, 12th and 26th respectively in terms of the number of housing units reported by HUD to have unmet housing needs. HUD reports there are a total of 356 rental housing units with unmet need in these three counties ( 264 in Aransas County, 92 in Nueces County and none in Refugio County). HUD reports the the number of rental housing units with unmet need in Jefferson County is 923, Oranges County is 868, Fort Bend County is 451, and Galveston County is 1406.

Finally, HUD requires that the State use federal funds in a way that does not neglect communities of color, who in the past have been left out of recovery. Jefferson, Orange, Fort Bend and Galveston counties have significantly higher African American populations compared with Aransas, Nueces and Refugio counties. All of these counties have similar percentages of Latino residents. GLO officials are supposed to pay special attention to ensuring that people afforded protection under the civil rights law receive their fair share of recovery dollars.

The State’s action plan says that Harris County will receive: $35 million reserved for buyouts for 175 homeowners whose homes sustained flooding during the storm; and the Partial Repair and Essential Power for Sheltering Program (PREPS) that is currently being administered by the GLO with FEMA dollars. It appears that the funds for PREPS may be used to pay the State’s 10 percent share of the program. If that’s the case, how is that a priority given the billions of dollars the State of Texas has in its Rainy Day Fund that it has thus far refused to tap to help disaster survivors? PREPS provides temporary repairs to homes that sustained less than $17,000 in FEMA verified loss. With so many households living in hotels and motels and others in moldy apartments, why is a general buyout program the highest priority? The draft action plan doesn’t say much except that buyouts will cost the government less if they are made before people start repairs. But these are simply cost efficiencies, not urgent human needs.

Over the past few days we have written about how the GLO plan for disaster recovery so far lacks transparency and have discussed the importance of citizen participation. When State officials make these difficult decisions about the prioritization of funds across communities, much more is necessary than reporting historical weather patterns and the economic climate of counties to explain their priorities. State government has an obligation to justify to survivors of Hurricane that these decisions have a rational basis and are not merely political decisions.

In the next action plan for allocating $5 billion, disaster survivors, their advocates and local officials, must demand transparency and sound planning from the State of Texas in the allocation of these federal funds.

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