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GLO prepares to screw Houston again on Harvey recovery funds

Gird yourselves.

Of the more than 300,000 homes in Texas damaged by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, none were in Coryell County.

Located 220 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, this small agricultural county was not the place Congress had in mind when it sent Texas more than $4 billion in disaster preparedness money six months following the storm, said U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston.

“We wanted to help people who were hurt by Harvey and had the potential to be hurt again, as opposed to people who were inland and not likely to have suffered great damage,” Green said.

Nevertheless, Coryell is slated to receive $3.4 million under the plan by the Texas General Land Office and its commissioner, George P. Bush.

After the land office awarded $1 billion of the aid last year, giving the city of Houston nothing, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development accused Bush’s office of discriminating against Black and Latino Texans. The land office had an opportunity to correct these inequities as it developed a new spending plan.

But an analysis by The Texas Tribune found that the land office is on track to follow a similar pattern as it prepares to allocate the next $1.2 billion of the federal aid. The agency’s revised plan will once again send a disproportionately high share of money to inland counties with lower risk of natural disasters.

Residents in the counties that will benefit most are also significantly whiter and more conservative than those receiving the least aid, an outcome some Democrats view with suspicion as Bush competes for the Republican nomination for attorney general this month.

[…]

John Henneberger, co-director of the low-income housing advocate Texas Housers, whose complaint set off the federal investigation, said the land office is failing to meet the most basic requirement for the money: to spend disaster aid in the areas at highest risk for disasters.

“Why does some community 200 miles from the coast get a new water system when you’ve got neighborhoods that have flooded four or five times in the last decade in a coastal community?” Henneberger said. “It’s a very cynical — and we think illegal — use of the funds.”

Numerous studies have shown poor people and people of color are most likely to be impacted by disasters, said Kevin Smiley, a professor of sociology at Louisiana State University. Planning for future calamities should address that disparity rather than make it worse, he added.

“It’s weird to think about disasters as one of the fundamental mechanisms widening social disparity in the United States, but they are,” said Smiley, whose research focuses on Harvey recovery efforts. “And it’s through nitty-gritty governmental processes that are disbursing mitigation funds that are partly doing it.”

See here for the previous update. The key thing to understand here is that this is not a mistake, it’s not an accident, it’s not the result of a good faith difference of opinion, and it’s not something that can be corrected by reasoned persuasion. It’s a deliberate choice, one that has now been made multiple times. Unfortunately, this time around they had a little help.

The land office’s new proposal for determining which counties would get funding, submitted in August, eliminated its old scoring metrics and instead opted to give $1.2 billion to nine regional councils of government, which would decide how to spend it within the HUD and state counties. These groups are political subdivisions of the state that help plan regional projects like infrastructure.

The land office argued the revisions would allow aid distribution to be tailored more closely to regions’ different mitigation needs. But although the strategy is different, a Tribune analysis of the plan found a fundamentally similar result: far lower spending per capita in the counties with the highest disaster risk.

The funding has not yet been allocated, but the state’s methodology all but guarantees the less disaster-prone counties selected by Bush would still end up with two to four times more funding per resident than the more coastal counties chosen by HUD.

This is because a sizable chunk of the councils of government’s $1.2 billion will flow inland. Even if the land office spent all of it in HUD counties — the plan only requires the councils to spend half their allotment there — it would still not close the per-person spending gap created by the initial funding competition.

Including the awards from the first funding competition, two councils composed of state-picked inland counties that rank no higher than 66th on the disaster index will end up with $752 per resident under the new plan.

The council which includes Jefferson, Orange and Hardin counties — HUD-selected counties on or near the coast that rank in the top 8 for disaster risk — will receive $441 per resident.

When federal investigators reviewed the original plan, these kinds of outcomes were a problem. HUD’s fair housing office on March 4 concluded that the initial scoring competition discriminated against Texans on the basis of race and national origin, since the coastal areas it steered aid away from have high concentrations of nonwhite residents.

Of the nine states that received disaster mitigation funding from the same federal appropriation, only Texas has received such a sanction. HUD gave the state two options: Enter into a voluntary agreement to correct the disparity or face a civil rights lawsuit from the Department of Justice.

And then, two weeks later, HUD approved the Bush team’s new spending plan.

In a letter to the land office on March 18, HUD Office of Block Grant Assistance Director Jessie Handforth Kome said the agency was required to approve the new plan because it was “substantially complete.” She warned, however, that HUD would closely monitor how Texas spends the rest of the aid and could address new violations by requiring the state to give money back.

The advocacy groups who pushed HUD to investigate possible discriminiation were shocked. They felt the best strategy would have been to withhold approval of the plan until Texas had demonstrated future aid distribution would be fair to Black and Latino residents in communities most at risk for disasters.

“HUD is making this harder on themselves,” said Maddie Sloan, an attorney who works on disaster recovery issues for public interest nonprofit Texas Appleseed. “It would make much more sense to ensure the money gets where it’s needed in the first place instead of doing a retroactive look at where it went and whether that violates the law.”

The mixed messaging from HUD, however, creates the impression that Texas can simply ignore the agency’s discrimination claims and spend the aid as it sees fit.

The land office has since shown few signs it is open to compromise. In a blistering 12-page letter in April responding to the discrimination findings, attorneys for the agency called HUD’s objections “politically motivated” and “factually and legally baseless” and noted that HUD had approved the state’s plan for distributing the money.

How thoroughly HUD may vet the new land office plan is unclear. If investigators apply the same rigor they did to the original, said Texas Housers Research Director Ben Martin, they will likely conclude it also violates federal civil rights laws.

“The jurisdictions that were hardest hit by Hurricane Harvey remain the jurisdictions at the highest risk of future disaster,” Martin said. “They’re being severely underfunded by GLO.”

I don’t understand what HUD is doing either. At this point, it may be best to bring on the civil rights lawsuit. And vote in a Land Commissioner that won’t do this sort of thing again.

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