Study says to fix Harvey-related housing damage, Houston needs $2 billion more in federal funds

Vacant homes damaged by Hurricane Harvey in Rockport had mold warnings spray-painted on them after the storm.
Vacant homes damaged by Hurricane Harvey in Rockport had mold warnings spray-painted on them after the storm.
Shelby Knowles for The Texas Tribune

An estimated 130,000 Houstonians affected by Harvey were overlooked in city’s the original housing needs assessment, according to the Houston Housing and Community Development Department.

To fix the previously neglected damage, the city needs an extra $2 billion in federal resources, the agency said in an Oct. 5 report .

The $3 billion in federal relief money that the city already received from the National Flood Insurance Program, FEMA individual assistance and loans from the Small Business Administration mostly went to wealthier neighborhoods, according to the report. The extra funding that the report requests would have to come from additional congressional appropriations, said Sarah Labowitz, the communications and policy director for the housing and community development department.

There’s another $1.17 billion in housing relief coming from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in December, and this report’s findings will play a part in how that money is distributed, said Tom McCasland, the city’s director of housing and community development.

The agency is trying to get an accurate accounting of unmet needs in areas damaged by Harvey’s flooding, McCasland said. “The way they have counted for years now puts us in a position of undercounting the true need,” he said.

Data scientists and flood engineers worked with the city on an eight-month study to create the report, marking a new strategy for disaster relief assessment. Previous assessments relied on approved FEMA individual assistance claims, which are often difficult to access for low income, disabled and elderly populations – the people who are also the most likely to still be struggling to recover.

By studying socioeconomic data and the demographic makeup of households in conjunction with flood maps, meteorological data and hydraulic modeling, the researchers have attempted to “understand who was impacted, not just which buildings,” the report said.

Although the first task is determining the storm’s overall cost, McCasland said the city wants “to ensure that this recovery’s success is graded upon how well we’re getting the funding through to the most vulnerable populations.”

And there’s a lot left to do: a dozen low-income neighborhoods saw home damage that totaled more than half the residents’ incomes, according to the report, which found that just over a fifth of the federal aid earmarked for Houston so far has gone to low- and middle-income neighborhoods.

Using the data the researchers collected, the city plans to reach out to residents in low-income neighborhoods as the release date for the additional HUD funding approaches. Without sufficient outreach efforts, McCasland said, the most vulnerable populations often “get to being served right about the time the money runs out.”

Thirty percent of Houston households sustained Harvey-related damage, and 10 percent had water inside their homes, according to the report. Nearly 60 percent of the damage occurred outside of the 500-year floodplain after torrential rainfall from Harvey — which dropped over 50 inches of rain in some areas — overwhelmed the city’s bayous and drainage systems.

The city’s report will be open for public comment until Nov. 5.



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