Slow expenditures, questionable priorities plague Houston and Harris County administered hurricane relief efforts

We have been critical of the decisions of the City of Houston and of Harris County so far as their uses of federal CDBG funds intended to assist victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.On top of the inappropriate use of the funds it now seems the city has been extremely slow to put the funds to use.

WRONG PROGRAM PRIORITIES

Neither the city or the county has proposed to expend any of the funds to directly help the Katrina evacuees with their critical housing needs. Instead, the funds are allocated to reimburse the city for expanded police enforcement in areas where large numbers of Katrina evacuees were living, to a program to reimburse landlords for repairs to apartments and to reimburse the county for the cost of MHMR services, counseling and jails.

A third of Houston’s CDBG recovery funds are explicitly devoted to incarcerating evacuees as part of a broad public safety program to increase police presence at apartment developments with high evacuee populations. The “Evacuee Public Services” program anticipates arresting about 20% of the total evacuees remaining in the city. The City of Houston’s draft amendment to the Texas Action Plan for Disaster Recovery to use CDBG recovery funds states: “It is anticipated that approximately 20,000 evacuees will be incarcerated in the County jail as a result of the proposed Multi-Family Community Liaison Program.”

In another twist on an already problematic recovery strategy, the Houston Chronicle discovered last year that at least one of the apartment complexes to be funded by the CDBG public safety program would not even be housing evacuees. The landlord, it turned out, had chosen not to participate in the DHAP program. While the Harris County Housing Authority told the Chronicle they would provide relocation assistance to tenants at this and other developments that pulled out of the evacuee housing assistance program, the agency had no money to help pay for security and utility deposits, according to Guy Rankin, the housing authority’s executive director. This situation illustrates how two major failures of hurricane recovery have intersected to tragically deny needy evacuees housing assistance: the misuse of federal CDBG recovery funds, and a poorly designed federal temporary assistance program that leaves evacuees in unstable housing that can be lost to the whims of a landlord.

SLOW EXPENDITURES

A status report from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs on the funds allocated to Houston and Harris County reports a very slow expenditure rate.

The City of Houston has expended only 33% of its $42,000,000 allocation through June 2008. The Housing Safety Component has expended 60.32% of its $20,000,000 allocation.  The Apartments to Standards program was also allocated $20,000,000 and is 9% expended.

Harris County has expended even less, 2.80% of its $21,000,000 allocation.