AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Advocacy groups said Friday that Texas is poised to unfairly distribute billions in federal funding provided for housing repairs following Hurricane Harvey's devastation — prioritizing wealthy homeowners over poorer victims in ways that could constitute racial discrimination.
At issue is a draft state rebuilding plan that says homeowners may only be eligible for federal assistance, regardless of income, if they suffered $8,000 in property damages. The renters' threshold is $2,000.
Harvey hit Texas in late August, damaging or destroying tens of thousands of homes in Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city, and smaller communities throughout the state's Gulf Coast. In addition to other disaster recovery approved by Congress, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Agency has allocated a bit more than $5 billion to rebuild Texas homes.
But a coalition led by the Austin-based nonprofit Texas Housers says damage assessments to determine who is eligible to get help are based on data from Federal Emergency Management Agency inspections that calculate property losses rather than the full human toll of major natural disasters — making it more difficult for victims who live in lower income areas to meet damage thresholds.
They say that incomplete data, coupled with the thresholds, could combine to exclude low- and middle-income households from more than $1 billion in housing repair aid across Texas.
"Whether you're living in a $500,000 home or a $50,000 home, a foot of water inside of it, or your roof blowing off, is going to have the same effect," Charlie Duncan, Texas Housers' research director, said during a news conference at the state Capitol. "It's going to render that home unlivable and you're going to need assistance."
Duncan said Harvey victims who rented and owned homes in 20 largely minority areas in Houston, as well coastal communities like Port Arthur, are most likely to be excluded.
"It's absolutely a civil rights issue," he said. "A lot of these zip codes that we've identified that stand to be the most underfunded are communities of color."
Brittany Eck, a spokeswoman for Texas' General Land Office, which is overseeing housing recovery and rebuilding efforts, said federal officials — not the state — set damage eligibility thresholds.
"The info that they are citing is pulled from the formula used in the Federal Register, posted by HUD, that determines the HUD methodology for allocation of funds that the GLO is required to use," Eck said by email, referring to the federal and her own agency by their initials.
Eck said any threshold modifications could make the federal government reject the final version of Texas' plan for distributing aid, which is still in draft stages. She also said Texas has included discretionary language to ensure that more Texans qualify for funding.
But advocates said they'd like to see Texas fight to make its funding plan more inclusive, a concern echoed Friday by northeast Houston resident Alisa Anthony.
Anthony, who like a lot of her neighbors in the Houston Gardens neighborhood is black, was renting a home from her mother when Hurricane Harvey brought in several feet of flooding. The house and everything inside was a total loss, she said, and only four homeowners on her block have returned home eight months after the storm.
"It seems like disaster recovery programs don't think about people like my finance, myself, my neighbors," said Anthony, who worked as a home health care aid but lost her job when her patient also was displaced by Harvey.
Anthony recently lost the hotel room that the federal government had been paying for in the storm's aftermath and have since moved in with the 94-year-old mother of her finance.
"Disaster recovery programs must change so that everyone can recover," Anthony said.