Does the Texas action plan for Hurricane Harvey recovery promote equity and inclusion for survivors?

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 14 days 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. 

For the past two weeks we have written about how the Texas draft action plan for spending $57.8 million falls short in assessing the the state’s disaster recovery needs and fails to make the State agency decision-making process transparent to the public.

Since the draft was released on Jan. 18, our staff has been analyzing available data, reading through the plan, and drafting comments to present to the Texas General Land Office to convey lessons and best practices for an equitable recovery. The letter we hand-delivered last week is below.

The 42-page document is comprehensive. It is based on Texas Housers’ 10 years of experience with the recovery process following four different hurricanes. Texas Housers has submitted these comments to the GLO with the hope that the state agency can incorporate the priorities and programs detailed in the letter into draft action plans for future federal recovery assistance allocations that are sure to come.

In this letter we request 41 actions to be taken by the GLO — from upholding civil rights monitoring and compliance to addressing a methodology that undercounts renters in need. Among the requested actions are seven priorities that we want to highlight.

1.) Incorporate into the Harvey recovery plan the practices that worked well from the Hurricanes Ike and Dolly recovery. These provisions resulted from a 2010 agreement between the State of Texas, Texas Housers and Texas Appleseed. It required the State to have a fair housing review process, establish timelines and benchmarks for accelerating the rebuilding, gave disaster survivors the right to rebuild their homes in place or move to a safer and higher opportunity neighborhood and much more that made the recovery better and more fair.

2.) All people have the opportunity to meaningfully participate in the recovery plan. It is important to meet affected people where they are — in their communities. There should be robust outreach to ensure that all disaster survivors have the opportunity to understand what is in the plan and have their voices heard, with the expectation that state officials will listen.

3.) Data and methodology used to guide funding decisions should be public. With ultimately $5 billion in recovery funds available, the State must rely on data to ensure that this unprecedented, massive recovery effort is fairly and efficiently administered. FEMA has provided the data to State agencies but both have rejected our requests to make the data available to us to analyze. It is not enough for government workers to withhold the data and ask the public to simply trust they are using the data to come up with the right way to spend billions of dollars. We have been told that there are privacy concerns with releasing address-level data about households that have applied for FEMA assistance. However, there is precedence in providing this kind of data to the public. In November, a federal court ruled in favor of a news agency that was seeking detailed FEMA data, exactly the kind of data that is required to accurately assess needs.

4.) Prioritize housing help for Texans with low and moderate incomes before taking on other activities. Texas Housers hears over and over from the communities we engage with that housing recovery is their number one priority. These are families without other financial resources to help them to rebuild their homes. We think that the first priority for use of federal community development dollars for disaster recovery should be unmet housing needs of owners AND renters with incomes below 50 percent of median family income. Then unmet housing needs for those between 51 percent and 80 percent should be addressed, followed by infrastructure and flood control in those neighborhoods. Other housing needs and other resilience and mitigation projects should then be considered.

5.) Accurately assess infrastructure needs; don’t rely the flawed assessment by Rebuild Texas. This request made by the governor’s commission is not reflective of the needs of households or communities. Rather, it is a list of projects with little prioritization or clear criteria for selection. Instead, the state should undertake a full and accurate survey of infrastructure needs, including those in low-income communities and include it in the action plan.

6.) Make State-run short-term housing programs work right. In the draft action plan, state officials propose using federal dollars to help pay for short-term housing programs including a rapid repair program. The state must analyze and report on these programs’ performance and propose modifications and improvements to address any shortfalls in effectiveness or disaster survivor participation.

7.) Incorporate the Four Rights into the Action Plan. Community leaders in Houston developed these rights and they resonate with these leaders, and will likely resonate to the same people who should be helped by federal disaster recovery dollars. The right to choose, the right to stay, the right to equal treatment, and the right to have a say. If the GLO wants to provide communities with access to the recovery process, a step in the right direction is to use these rights to guide who and how this recovery should help.