State issues

February 21 Update: Governor Abbott and the Texas Legislature continue to fail to act to help Texas freeze survivors

Less than 48 hours after Texas Housers posted a blog entry challenging Texas government officials to take 5 critical actions to address the weather disaster, President Biden issued a major disaster declaration covering 77 of Texas is 254 counties. The president’s actions make residents in these areas eligible for individual assistance from FEMA, including reimbursement for repair costs and temporary housing vouchers.

Texans can go to FEMA‘s website at disasterassistance.gov or call 800-621-3362 to apply for assistance.

For a presidential disaster declaration to be issued, evidence is required from the state government that the cost of the damages overwhelms a state’s resources. Expect to see additional counties declared eligible for FEMA individual assistance as the State of Texas finally gets around to documenting the extent of the damages in the remaining counties.

Statements by Texas officials implying criticism of the president for not immediately naming all Texas counties as major disaster areas is political posturing and disingenuousness. It’s the State of Texas’ responsibility and it’s in fact only the State of Texas that is in a position to perform the local damage assessments in each Texas county that is required by law to make the case for the release of FEMA funds. Texans, and the news media in particular, should not blindly buy into the attempt at blame shifting from the State to the president that has predictably appeared following the initially geographically limited disaster declaration.

As we pointed out Friday in a list of 5 things the State of Texas needs to do, an accurate damage assessment of individual homes and businesses is essential. The Governor should mobilize the National Guard to cooperate with faith volunteers and local government workers to carry it out this assessment. Until we know the extent of the need and who has unmet need we cannot solve this problem. This assessment is not happening however because the Governor has failed to act.

The State’s immediate attention should be focused both on gathering this data to open up the federal resources but also on helping people with immediate repairs. While the FEMA individual assistance program is potentially going to reimburse people for repairs, past disasters have taught us that most low income, elderly and Texans with disabilities will not get it without help from state and local officials.

The favorable cost/benefit ratio of spending money to make sure that eligible people can successfully apply for and receive federal disaster benefits is clear. Texas Housers has documented the massive exclusion of renters of color living on low incomes from Hurricane Harvey assistance. We have asked for four years for HUD and the State of Texas to correct the policies they have put in place that keep many Texans from getting the assistance they need to recover. Neither HUD nor the State of Texas have acted despite the clear evidence that these failures amount to more than inefficiency and actually represent structural racism.

Many survivors do not have internet access to apply. Many are not aware of the need to document damages and keep receipts. Most are struggling with short term survival needs. It is essential that state and local government officials and volunteers are make immediate contact with survivors to assist them in successfully navigating the FEMA assistance program. This is not happening at anywhere close to the scale that is required however.

Most importantly, Texans who don’t have access to water need help right now to find someone to do repairs and to advance the money to pay for those repairs. The five point plan Texas Housers outlined calls on the State of Texas to coordinate with faith-based volunteers and mobilize the National Guard to assist people in making emergency repairs to broken pipes. This is the concrete an immediate need that state leaders should focus on right now. So far there’s been no action from our State government in this area.

The State of Texas has thus far failed to deliver an emergency appropriation of state funds for home repairs. The Texas Legislature is in session and there is nothing preventing Governor Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan from gaveling the legislature immediately into session to make an emergency appropriation of funds to help people pay for these repairs. These funds could even be later recovered by the State because they would ultimately be reimbursable by FEMA.

There is nothing other than a lack of will preventing our state leaders from getting people short term financial loans to pay the cost of plumbing repairs.

Texas Housers has been up close with the details of disaster recovery in Texas for going on 20 years. We have seen this same scenario play out across multiple disasters in Texas. Leadership fails while politicians blame each other.

Once again, here’s a five point plan we offered two days ago that the State of Texas needs to implement right now.

    Secure from the federal government FEMA hotel/motel vouchers to temporarily house people whose homes are uninhabitable.
    Make an assessment (within 10 days) of the immediate financial need of homeowners and renters with low incomes who do not have access to the money or insurance to make necessary repairs or replace lost possessions.
    Immediately mobilize the Texas National Guard and faith-based volunteers and provide state-level coordination and support of their efforts to provide shelter, water and emergency repairs to Texans. Priority should be given to the poor, the elderly and people with disabilities. The Texas Guard and volunteers should be quickly trained and equipped to provide temporary emergency plumbing repairs to keep Texans housed until public financial resources and licensed plumbers are available to provide permanent repairs.
    Enact an emergency appropriation from the Texas Legislature sufficient to pay for restoring Texans’ homes to a habitable condition.
    Establish a statewide financial assistance program, modeled after the federal rent relief program now being administered by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. This program should get money to the people for home repairs. Funds should go directly to homeowners and to renters who need to find another place to live or replace personal property lost from water damage. This program needs to be simple to apply for and quick to get the money to the people.

I started my commitment to housing justice for people and communities with low incomes in 1975 in Austin's Clarksville community. These years of working side-by-side with dedicated community leaders to find solutions to housing and community development challenges have taught me some things and I’m learning new things every day.

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