The Texas General Land Office will take control of Houston’s Hurricane Harvey housing recovery program after receiving approval from federal officials, even as a lawsuit challenging the takeover remains pending.
George P. Bush, commissioner of the General Land Office arrives to discuss long-term Hurricane Harvey recovery funds during a news conference at the Houston City Hall Annex on Thursday, June 28, 2018, in Houston. The recovery efforts include the first round of funding for buyouts through CDBG-DR funds.( Brett Coomer / Houston Chronicle )
The green light from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development officials came late Monday, 45 days after the Texas Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling that had blocked Land Commissioner George P. Bush’s agency from performing recovery work in Houston. State officials had said the ruling allowed them to move ahead with the takeover by seeking approval from the federal government, even before the court issued a final ruling on the case.
It was not immediately clear what would happen if the court were to reject the GLO’s takeover attempt.
Mayor Sylvester Turner said city officials learned of HUD’s decision from the news media and were unable to reach the GLO Tuesday morning. He told residents at an afternoon city council meeting that the status of ongoing home repairs under the city’s program remained unclear.
“We’ll have to wait and see what the GLO does,” Turner said in response to questions from a Houston resident who recently was approved for a home rebuild under the city program.
Deputy Land Commissioner Mark Havens sent Turner a termination notice shortly before 5 p.m. Tuesday in which he informed the mayor the city had until Nov. 6 to wrap up its recovery programs, which total $1.3 billion in federal grant funding. Brittany Eck, a spokeswoman for the General Land Office, said the agency would be able to pick up existing city projects without requiring residents to restart the process, as long as the city sends it the necessary paperwork.
About an hour after receiving the notice, Turner released an updated statement slamming state and federal officials for “arbitrarily eliminating” the city’s funds, adding that “homeowners and renters who have been impacted by Harvey are the ones who will suffer by their capricious action.”
“In this political and partisan environment, the GLO’s power grab and HUD’s decision are not surprising,” Turner said.
The move has been in the works at least as far back as April when Bush notified Turner he was moving forward with the takeover. In a letter to the mayor, Bush had offered to let the city “negotiate the possible retention” of its multifamily rental and home buyer assistance programs, among others. Land office officials mainly are seeking control of the city’s $428 million effort to repair or replace single-family homes damaged in the storm.
Gov. Greg Abbott last year gave the state agency control over a separate $4.3 billion pot of funds dedicated to flood mitigation projects.
Ben Hirsch, an organizer and policy advocate for West Street Recovery, a disaster recovery organization, said the city showed an “extreme lack of transparency” with residents, many of whom were not informed by city officials about the prospect of the takeover, he said.
Hirsch acknowledged the city had legitimate concerns about turning the program over to the GLO, but he argued Turner should have acknowledged months ago that the agency was likely to succeed in its takeover.
“The most generous thing you can say about what happened is they took a gamble and they lost,” Hirsch said. “And who were the chips? The chips were these people who (could) lose out on these critical funds.”
Eck said state officials still intend for the city to retain control over its more successful programs, such as one for multifamily home construction and repairs.
In the termination letter, Havens wrote GLO officials are “willing to consider” drafting a new plan that would allow the city to retain programs under which it has “made acceptable progress in the GLO’s determination.” The state would submit that plan to HUD after Nov. 6, Havens said, leaving federal officials with 45 days to accept it.
Turner said the city remained “committed to finding an amicable path forward as demonstrated by our multiple offers to the GLO prior to pursuing litigation.” The mayor also said, however, that he had contacted members of Houston’s congressional delegation about the issue, though he did not elaborate.
In a letter outlining the terms of the approval, HUD Acting Assistant Secretary John Gibbs wrote that it is “imperative” that city and state officials “work together to prevent or mitigate disruption” to program participants.
“The Department expects the State of Texas to execute a transition plan with each of the jurisdictions to ensure no negative impact to disaster survivors,” Gibbs wrote.
Turner said one of the city’s multifamily projects is scheduled to be completed Wednesday, and the HUD approval “puts that project and all other projects in jeopardy.”
“Unfortunately, we cannot fund and go forward with these projects without GLO’s confirmation that we can use the funds that have been already reserved for these projects,” Turner said in a statement before he received the termination letter.
Bush and GLO officials repeatedly have criticized the slow pace of the city’s recovery program, their justification for attempting the takeover. By Tuesday, more than three years after Harvey, the city’s single-family home recovery program had repaired or reconstructed 90 homes and sent 94 reimbursement checks to homeowners who performed their own repair work.
City officials, including Turner, have accused the land office, which administers disaster recovery funds statewide, of obstructing their progress by changing guidelines and slow-walking its reviews of homeowner applications. Houston’s program prioritizes low-income, disabled and senior residents, which city officials also say is causing the recovery to move slower.
GLO officials have denied the city’s accusations that they are providing inconsistent oversight, and contended that their more efficient recovery program is not coming at the expense of the residents most in need.
A Chronicle analysis of GLO records found that 62 percent of applicants approved for home repairs through July under the state program made less than half of the area median income — about $38,000 for a four-person household.
In Houston’s program, 80 percent of accepted repair applicants made less than that amount. If the city’s reimbursements to homeowners who funded repairs themselves are removed, making the comparison more akin to the state’s repair program, the figure rises to 91 percent.
The GLO operates its own home repair program in the 48 counties outside Harris that received federal Harvey aid. As of Tuesday, the agency said it had repaired or reconstructed more than 2,000 homes.
The GLO earlier this year negotiated a more amicable takeover of Harris County’s home repair program after the county failed to begin construction on a single home. The state is taking control of about $338 million of the county’s $1.2 billion allotment.