West Street Recovery makes recommendations to improve state-run rapid repair program

This is a guest blog, written by West Street Recovery staff Ben Hirsch and Becky Selle. West Street Recovery is a grassroots mutual aid group helping many Houstonians recover from Hurricane Harvey.

The Partial Repair and Essential Power for Sheltering (PREPS) program is a temporary shelter program funded by FEMA and administered by the General Land Office (GLO) of Texas. The stated intention of the program is to provide temporary repairs to owner-occupied single family residences in order to allow homeowners to live in their homes as they complete permanent repairs. However, the homeowner experience and perception of PREPS is drastically different than GLO official statements would lead one to believe.

The primary issue with PREPS is that it is not implemented as described. Administrative failings include poor communication, inconsistent quality, and failure to address safety and health concerns. Homeowners in the program don’t know how to report problems on their own and are sometimes left worse off than before. Participants have reported increased mold, poorly hung sheetrock, bathtubs and sinks with dysfunctional plumbing, and even contractor theft.

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Mold growth in home after undergoing the PREPS program. (Photo by WSR)

Homeowners who have been entered into PREPS do not understand the goals of the program, are unsure about  how to voice complaints, and are unaware of how the repairs fit into overall recovery efforts. Beyond poor communication, PREPS contractors often fail to meet program guidelines outlined by GLO staff and official statements. West Street Recovery staff regularly see PREPS homes that have not had all wet materials removed. Moreover, the damage assessments completed by program inspectors are woefully inadequate and result in insufficient work orders that do not address all of the repairs that need to be made. Failing to remove flooded materials has led to active mold growth in several houses West Street Recovery serves. This, in turn, creates a health hazard for families who lose their FEMA-funded hotel accommodations when PREPS repairs are finished. Even when all wet materials are removed and mold is treated,  the work of PREPS contractors is often of such low quality that it cannot be used as the first step in long-term rebuilding. But even in the absence of these administrative failings, many homeowners are not comfortable living in a partially-completed home as further repairs are completed due to safety, health, and privacy concerns.

In combining the input of residents and home repair experts with environmental health research, West Street has arrived at seven recommendations that we believe will enable PREPS to realize its potential. If adapted, these recommendations will facilitate the home repair process, provide safe and dignified housing for flood survivors and return families to their communities as quickly as possible.

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Mold growth on sheetrock torn and left in a home repaired by PREPS. (Photo by WSR)

Recommendations:

  1. Before PREPS work begins, there must be a clear communication of final inspection criteria and scope of work.
  2. Before work begins, the protocol for reporting low-quality work, poor client service and unfulfilled scopes of work needs to be explained to program participants.
  3. All houses should be fully mucked before repairs begin.
  4. All PREPS houses should undergo a complete mold remediation process.
  5. All homes must be fully dried, with wood framing testing at or below 17% moisture content.
  6. PREPS work must not obscure more serious problems of damaged framing or dangerous electrical systems.
  7. As the need arises, the General Land Office must make simple repairs on homes already worked on by PREPS that protect the work and increase the safety of the home.

Members of West Street Recovery have been told that in future disasters FEMA would like to reduce use of hotel vouchers and increase the use PREPS or other rapid temporary repair strategies. But before this happens, FEMA and the General Land Office, which is tasked with administering the program in Texas, must make serious changes to the way these programs are implemented. When West Street and clients report the shortcomings described above, PREPS officials tend to respond  as if each contractor error and homeowner left dissatisfied is an isolated incident. If it is true that rapid and partial home repairs are FEMA’s new temporary housing solution, the systematic problems with this strategy must be examined and resolved. We believe that this process must begin by taking the concerns of homeowners — especially low-income homeowners of color–into account. The recommendations above are based on our conversations with residents and is our first contribution to that task.

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