National issues State issues

At least we are better off than Mississippi and Alabama

Henneberger testifyingWatch my testimony before the Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity of the House Financial Service Committee, or, better yet, watch the testimony of the panel of housing advocates from all the Gulf Coast states.

I was invited to Washington to testify on May 8 before the Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity of the House Financial Services Committee at a hearing titled “Emergency CDBG Funds in the Gulf Coast: Uses, Challenges, and Lessons for the Future”.

I was the last panelist on a panel of housing advocates from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. As I sat at the witness table before the committee listening to my colleagues from other states review a litany of civil rights violations and maladministration that characterize their state’s management of emergency housing relief for victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita I gained new appreciation for the fact that Texas has charted a better course.

Most egregious among the states is Mississippi. There $600 million of Community Development Block Grant funds, intended to aid low-income families whose homes were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina are being diverted to rebuild a port and to collaterally subsidize the construction of a luxury hotel and casino. While the state has been extremely generous with higher income homeowners, according to the advocates it has only provided assistance to a fraction of the low income African-American households devastated by Katrina and has helped very few renters. Committee chairwoman Maxine Waters vowed to do something to fix the problem in Mississippi.

Alabama, like Texas, relied on local government agencies to distribute housing assistance. According to Alabama Arise, the advocates on the ground, at least one low income African-American community was told incorrectly that it was “not eligible” for assistance by local administrating agencies

The size and the scope of the problems that have beset Louisiana’s efforts to rebuild housing for low income people have been well chronicled. The bottom line is that the money is not getting to the people who need it and rebuilding in not taking place at the pace needed.

While Texas faces huge problems with its efforts to help low income people left homeless by Hurricane Rita the State has, through trial and error, crafted a much more responsible approach than these other states. All of the federal funds are earmarked for critical government infrastructure and for housing. (Whether the government infrastructure is truly “critical” will be a subject of a future posting here). None of the funding is being siphoned away for private port facilities and the like. All of the housing funds will be spent to assist families below 80% of median family income and the bulk of funds will be spent to house families at far lower income levels. There is no two-tier homeowner assistance program, one for the rich and middle class and the other for the poor, as in Mississippi. And finally, based on the profile of applications that have been submitted to the state, a very high proportion of the families receiving housing assistance will be African-Americans. The advocates from the other states all felt that there were significant civil rights and fair housing violations occurring as funds were directed this proportionally to white families. That will not happen in Texas.

Since the first days following the hurricanes we at TxLIHIS have been working with TDHCA to ensure that those with the greatest needs, especially the poor and the elderly, get the help that they need. While the State did not immediately embrace all of our recommendations, after the experience of an initial round of housing assistance that did not go too well, the State has largely come around to embrace the principles we articulated from the beginning.

This is not to say that Texas adopted precisely the program that we first recommended. Initially we advocated a direct payment program to people whose homes were destroyed. The State opted eventually for a program through which the State would directly oversee the rehabilitation or reconstruction of homes — acting a the “middle man” between homeowners and contractors. The State’s approach in many respects is superior to our initial idea. Given the difficulty of hiring contractors, ensuring the quality of their work and holding them accountable, it is better to have the State overseeing the contracting rather than to place the responsibility on elderly or low income homeowners.

Yet, in other regards the State’s approach presents other challenges. Given the extremely low levels of public assistance available to rebuild houses ($65,000-$75,000 maximum) how does the State produce houses of sufficiently high quality and avoid a sterile and homogeneous appearance? How does the State logistically manage 4,000 clients, each with unique needs? Despite these challenges I admire the State for being willing to take them on.

Tomorrow I will post the recommendations I presented to the House committee in my testimony. In future postings I’ll expand upon the challenges Texas faces in implementing its disaster home rebuilding program.

But it was a nice feeling as a witness before a congressional committee last month to be able to testify that my State was honestly trying to do the right thing for its low income citizens.

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