Déjà vu: Rebuilding public and subsidized housing damaged by the hurricane will have to wait

The state’s draft action plan for spending $57.8 million in federal disaster recovery funds was released on Jan. 18. The Texas General Land Office, which oversees the administration of the federal funds, has given the public several weeks to comment. Every day untilFeb. 1 Feb. 13, 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. 

It will be ten years this fall since Hurricane Ike struck Texas. The storm destroyed hundreds of public housing units, displacing thousands of poor families. Despite commitments on the part of the State of Texas and orders from the federal housing agency to replace each unit, nearly a decade later, local officials have failed to rebuild many of those homes in  both Galveston and Houston.

There is desperate shortage of affordable housing for low-income families in these cities (there were only 18 affordable and available housing units for Extremely Low Income Families in Houston before Hurricane Harvey hit), that government officials have been getting away with dragging their feet to rebuild this housing for almost a decade.

The effects of Hurricane Ike on public housing communities and residents still linger. But the lesson to the state about serving the most in need is clear: the State must insist that rebuilding the homes of these desperately poor families must take priority. And if local officials don’t rebuild right away, then the State government should step in and do it.

But there are ominous signs that the State isn’t prioritizing these needs. In the State of Texas Plan for Disaster Recovery, the General Land Office writes they “can reasonably assume” that the storm impacted people who live in public housing, but the GLO says, five months after the hurricane,  they do not have access to data that could show the need of the population that lives in public housing. Therefore, the State says, it does not propose rebuilding subsidized units in this $57.8 million action plan, and rather, defers determining the need for public housing to some time in the future.

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We picked up the phone and called HUD to ask if the data really was not available as the State wrote in their plan.

We found out the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development deployed employees to inspect damage of HUD-assisted properties and received damage reports from local public housing authorities. Some data, maybe not comprehensive and 100 percent complete data, does exist. The Texas General Land Office, despite being provided this information by HUD earlier in January, decided not to include it in its draft plan for disaster recovery.

Public housing agencies across disaster-impacted areas of Texas reported information such as total impacted units, the number of displaced households and damage estimates to the federal housing agency.  Enough data was conveyed that shows there is great need to restore and repair public housing in some of the hardest-hit areas in Texas. For example, in Ingleside in San Patricio County there was an estimated $5 million in damage to public housing while Aransas Pass estimates $3 million in damage. There are about 377 families who receive public housing assistance displaced in Houston and more than 300 in Port Arthur.

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Aside from this data that is available to the General Land Office, there has been lots of media coverage of public housing that was damaged, and a data set is not necessary to address those issues.

For example, the Houston Chronicle uncovered dangerous damage at the Clayton Homes public housing development not long after the storm struck. Conditions in more than 110 units of the 296 were beyond repair. This story got national coverage in the New York Times, but for whatever reason, this was not cited in the GLO’s needs assessment.

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Many displaced residents of Clayton Homes, and likely other similarly affected subsidized housing apartment communities mentioned above, were given housing choice vouchers (commonly referred to as Section 8) to use at any other apartment in Houston. Unfortunately, many recipients of these vouchers are discriminated against and there’s no law that prohibits landlords from denying housing to a voucher holder. So, it could take a lot of time for a voucher holder to find a landlord who will accept it. Until they can, they’re out of luck.

Compounding that problem is the severe shortage of housing vouchers. Low income families spend many years, sometimes a decade, on waiting lists to get a housing voucher.

In 2010, Texas Housers and our partners at Texas Appleseed reached a conciliation agreement with the State of Texas after the state’s disaster recovery plans left out families with low incomes and people of color. This was a result of the kind of advocacy and watchdog capacity our organizations are currently playing post-Harvey. The 2010 conciliation agreement helped direct $1.7 billion in disaster recovery aid to reach the low-income households whose needs were not being addressed. A provision of this agreement required a one-for-one replacement of public housing units in Galveston and prioritized this same one-for-one replacement in other jurisdictions.

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Fierce opposition to public and affordable housing in Galveston and Houston has delayed this aspect of the deal — almost a decade — and hundreds of families are left with few options that they can afford. Hurricane Harvey’s destruction is compounding their struggle.

This time around, given all of the previous experience with disasters and the intransigence of local officials when it comes to rebuilding low-income housing, State of Texas officials should be moving aggressively to get the rebuilding underway.

If the State government wants to avoid a repeat of the decade of delay, it should make its funding to jurisdictions conditional on their getting started restoring public and other subsidized housing right now. If the locals won’t do the job, then the State should step in and restore the housing themselves.

These are the same injustices and prejudice that was shocked the nation in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In Texas, instead of pledging “never again” we seem to be saying “one more time.”

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