Karen Paup’s testimony on post hurricane housing rebuilding in Texas

Note: Karen Paup was invited to testify before a subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security Committee on post-hurricane housing disaster disaster recovery in Texas. Here are her abbreviated oral remarks.

Testimony of Karen Paup, co director, Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, before the Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery
of the
Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs
United States Senate

Status report on the use of Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) funds to support disaster recovery along the Gulf Coast from the 2005 and 2008 hurricanes

March 20, 2009

Chairwoman Landrieu and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today on the effectiveness of CDBG in meeting the post-hurricane housing needs in Texas.

I would like to express my appreciation to you and the members of the committee as well as the members of your staff who are working to create a better future for long-term disaster recovery.

I am Karen Paup, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service (TxLIHIS). TxLIHIS is a nonprofit organization that advocates affordable housing for low-income Texans. We represent the interests of low-income citizens and do not represent any sector of the housing industry.

I will not go into detail explaining the hurricanes’ destruction in Texas.

Texas is encountering serious problems with the administration of the CDBG disaster recovery program that I have detailed in my written testimony. The two most serious problems are the unconscionably slow pace of providing housing assistance to disaster survivors and the diversion of CDBG funds away from housing rehabilitation and reconstruction and toward lower priority infrastructure and economic development activities in the Hurricane Ike and Dolly CDBG allocation.

Out of 5,175 homes contracted to be rehabilitated or reconstructed with CDBG disaster funds for Hurricane Rita, as of today only 486 homes in Texas have been completed. An additional 278 homes or manufactured housing units have been ordered or are under construction.

Much time was lost in the slow implementation of a program through which the state relied on consortiums of local governments known as councils of governments to administer the housing reconstruction programs. These organizations had little to no prior experience in carrying out housing programs and as a result their Implementation of the program has been unconscionably slow.

As a result of this poor performance the state housing agency has undertaken the direct administration of the program. As I explain in my written testimony we believe this is the best way to provide assistance, although this program itself has taken quite a while to get up to speed. We believe this program will ultimately be successful.

Tragically, in its plan for the $1.3 billion CDBG disaster assistance for hurricane Ike and Dolly survivors the State of Texas is moving back to relying on councils of governments and individual local governments to administer the program. We believe this will greatly delay housing assistance to the hundreds of thousands of families who need help.

Also of great concern to us is the decision of the State of Texas not to actually propose a plan of how to use the funds itself but instead to rely on these councils of governments to make critical decisions regarding the allocation of funds for housing as opposed to infrastructure. These councils of governments have a strong interest in maximizing the use of federal disaster funds for infrastructure that is been demonstrated in their decision to devote only about half of the available funds for disaster assistance for hurricane Ike and Dolly survivors for housing. This decision will leave many thousands of Texas hurricane survivors without any housing assistance.

RECOMMENDATIONS

My written testimony includes extensive recommendations for improving the existing CDBG disaster relief program. Time will permit me to only briefly summarize a few of those written recommendations.

1) We recommend a clear mandate by Congress that our nation’s first goal in disaster recovery is for disaster survivors to quickly obtain a decent, affordable home in a quality community.

2) Based on the experience of the Gulf Coast hurricanes we know that addressing the needs of low-income survivors requires carefully crafted assistance programs different from those designed to help higher income families recover.

3) We recommend coordination between FEMA and HUD. FEMA needs to compile accurate damage estimates, with income data on survivors along with their housing rebuilding needs so that Congress can appropriate the right amount of housing funding. FEMA and HUD need to work together so that low-income families have consistent, seamless case management as responsibility transfers from FEMA to HUD.

4) In the place of a single CDBG grant we recommendation Congress establish two disaster recovery block grants, allocating funds separately for housing and other needs. The housing grant should prioritize serving the most vulnerable members of the low-income population, the elderly, persons with disabilities, and single parents with children.

5) Poorly housed and chronically impoverished families struck by disaster need a permanent not just a temporary housing solution. We believe the housing block grant should make available to conically impoverished survivors permanent Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers.

6) Congress must ensure that HUD monitors and enforces fair housing laws in federal disaster housing programs and offer poor families options to relocate to communities with greater economic opportunity.

7) Finally, we recommend the establishment of a HUD Office of Disaster Preparedness and Recovery, charged with working with state and local governments for more rapidly carrying out housing recovery programs. The details of this important new office as well as details of all of our recommendations are found in my written testimony.

CONCLUSION

Texas has struggled for almost four years to come up with the correct approach to post-disaster housing repair and rebuilding. After a false start and painful delays we feel that Texas at last has a potentially successful program in place for Hurricane Rita survivors. Unfortunately, the state’s new plan for Hurricane Ike and Dolly recovery is based on a flawed model which has already proven to be too slow and directs funds away from critical individual recovery needs.

We urge the committee to quickly enact reforms to ensure that future rounds of disaster funding do not continue to be burdened with these problems and delays.