Is the state’s rapid home repair program an effective use of federal disaster recovery funds?

The state’s draft action plan for spending $57.8 million in federal disaster recovery funds was released on Jan. 18. The Texas General Land Office, which oversees the administration of the federal funds, has given the public 14 days to comment. Every day untilFeb. 1 Feb. 13, we’ll be asking fundamental questions about the action plan as we draft our own comments to the GLO to advocate for equitable disaster recovery for all Hurricane Harvey survivors. 

In the State of Texas Plan for Disaster Recovery, the General Land Office proposes using the $57.8 million federal allocation for three main programs:

  • buyouts to benefit impacted homeowners in Harris County,
  • the partial and rapid repair of damaged homes in Harris County, and
  • the reconstruction of affordable multi-family housing in three South Texas counties.

Today, we’ll take a closer look at the partial and rapid repair program.

The General Land Office titled the rapid repair program Partial Repair and Essential Power for Sheltering Program (PREPS). It began in November and since then, the GLO reports that 1,100 homes have been repaired and 5,000 are currently under repair.

Screen Shot 2018-02-01 at 3.13.54 PM.pngTexas Housers has long advocated a rapid stabilization program in order to stop mold and continued water infiltration into homes. Following Hurricane Rita we testified before Congress that this should be a priority.

But we never supported the idea of moving people into a home that really wasn’t up to standard the way PREPS does. We also always thought that a quick stabilization program should be paid for by FEMA and not from limited funds needed for long term rebuilding.

The way PREPS works is that while the Texas GLO administers the program, FEMA pays for 90 percent of it.  PREPS is not intended to provide long-term fixes. It’s mostly a stop-gap measure to address the lack of temporary or transitional housing for impacted homeowners. The GLO hires contractors to clean up debris, fix plumbing issues, provide a sink, hot plate or microwave, and a mini-fridge for a homeowner who qualifies to ensure that at least a small part of the home is livable.

There is a real danger when a program halfway repairs a home and tells people they have to live in it, especially when there are no funds available to quickly begin the final repair phase. The risks of living in a patched together home are greater to a family, and especially to the elderly, disabled and children the longer they are forced to live in the home waiting months or years for final repairs.

In the case of PREPS, the cost of repairs are limited to $20,000. FEMA pays 90 percent and the rest of that cost is the state’s responsibility. Here is where PREPS poses another problem. The state land office has proposed, in the Draft Hurricane Harvey Action Plan it has out for public comment, to use $8 million of the $57.8 million long-term federal rebuilding allocation to repay itself for its 10 percent share of the cost for homes in Harris County. Though this may be allowable under law, this is not what federal rebuilding grants should be used for. The question a lot of people are asking is why won’t the State of Texas pay for any of these costs itself? It would be more efficient if Texas officials paid for its $8 million share of the program out of the state’s $10 billion rainy day fund, which the Governor has repeatedly refused to open up, instead writing a check to repay itself out of federal funds that are desperately needed for starting rebuilding.

There seems to be a difference of opinion among GLO officials about the value of the PREPS program. “I personally think it is the worst option available, even with the 10 percent match if we can use CDBG-DR dollars for that,” said Pete Phillips, Senior Deputy Director of Community Development and Revitalization at the Texas General Land Office. This was at a Texas Senate Intergovernmental Relations Committee hearing in November. “It truly is camping in your home. It’s a home on studs on the foundation. Around the fixtures, there is potentially drywall, but not drywall throughout the house. So you can have potentially exposed wiring.”

Phillips’ boss has a different opinion. “This program is emerging as one of our most successful out of the six that we manage,” Land Commissioner George P. Bush testified at the Texas House Urban Affairs Committee hearing in January.

So which is it? We agree with Phillips.

In the absence of an alternative, there has been quite a bit of interest in PREPS with 13,000 of 79,000 potentially eligible families opting in, surprising GLO officials, according to the Houston Chronicle.

GLO officials say they took warnings and lessons from Louisiana. A similar program called Shelter at Home was used there after the 2016 floods, and though hailed by officials as a solution that saved taxpayers millions. Homeowner experiences however were not very positive. Some Louisiana homeowners reported shoddy or incomplete repairs by contractors, which caused them to seek shelter elsewhere because their homes were still not livable after the patch-work repairs. Unfortunately, once repairs are marked as completed, a homeowner doesn’t qualify for transitional shelter assistance through FEMA anymore. Homeowners also complained that all of the repairs were wasteful with much of the materials having to be trashed as soon as more permanent repairs began.

The recovery coalition we are part of in Houston has begun hearing complaints from homeowners about shoddy work on their homes under PREPS. We are predicting that we are going to be hearing a lot more from Texas homeowners about PREPS.

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