Contention over long-term recovery funds meant to assist Texans still suffering from the effects of Hurricane Harvey sparked a pre-emptive lawsuit this week, only one day after federal funds were finally approved.
With this year’s hurricane season in full-swing, southeastern Texas is still reeling from Harvey last year, with the impact disproportionately felt among low-income communities and people of color. The Texas Low Income Housing Information Service (also called Texas Housers) filed a housing discrimination complaint on Tuesday, arguing that the state could divert $5 billion in federal funds away from the low-income Texans the group argues are most in need of assistance.
According to the Houston Chronicle, the Austin-based service is concerned that Black and Latinx Texans, who disproportionately occupy Texas housing units and who are less likely to own their own homes, will be left behind as the funds are allocated.
That complaint is the latest development in the ongoing fight for aide and resources post-Harvey. On Monday, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) approved $5 billion in aide to Texas. The grant will funnel through the Texas General Land Office (GLO) and approximately $2.3 billion of the total will go to Harris County and its biggest city, Houston, one of the worst-hit areas.
But it will likely be months before Texans see any of that money, and for many in the state, patience has already run dry. For residents unable to afford new housing and dependent on government assistance, it is unlikely that a return to normalcy will be feasible — leaving them hanging in the midst of an ongoing hurricane season experts have speculated could be on a par with last year.
When Harvey hit the Texas coast in August 2017, the Category 4 storm soon tied with Hurricane Katrina as the costliest on record. More than 100 confirmed deaths are associated with Harvey and thousands were displaced across southeastern Texas. The mass-destruction of homes, many of which suffered irreparable damage, has left many in the area in a state of limbo amid wide-spread resentment.
Low-income communities were among those most impacted by Harvey, with many occupying flood-prone areas with insufficient infrastructure prior to the storm. In Houston, the country’s most diverse city — but also one of its most segregated — communities of color were left disproportionately vulnerable to the storm’s damage.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) oversaw much of the response to Harvey, including the Transitional Sheltering Assistance program meant to provide displaced residents with housing funds, including hotel costs. But FEMA announced this week that the program will end July 1, leaving 820 residents without a place to go.
That scenario is a familiar one — in April, some 1,400 were forced to leave hotel housing after FEMA determined that there was enough available housing in five surrounding counties to provide shelter.
Fighting for resources in the wake of Harvey has become commonplace. While conservative lawmakers, including Texas Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, pushed for federal funds for the state after Harvey, local warring over aide has also taken center stage.
Last September, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) denied requests from Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) to free up the Texas Economic Stabilization Fund, or “Rainy Day Fund”, to help the city. Abbott argued that the city was pitting “fiscal responsibility” against “financial panic,” taking a swipe at the politically progressive area’s stance that taxes would need to rise if aide was not provided.
Land Commissioner George P. Bush, who oversees GLO, has also dueled with Turner over the allocation of funds meant specifically for Houston. While direct funds for both Houston and Harris County were ultimately included in a final draft plan laying out how federal aid would be used, such back-and-forth has done little for those still suffering from Harvey’s lasting impact.
A lengthy report from Politico in May found that low-income Texans felt abandoned after the storm, particularly in areas like Houston’s Kashmere Gardens, where two-thirds of residents are Black. The area, where the median income is $23,000 per year, is located in a flood zone — but few residents were aware of a law requiring them to carry flood insurance. Caught between bureaucracy and a hard place, the area is far from recovered.
“The government doesn’t care about you at all, especially in a black neighborhood, especially in a poor neighborhood,” 67-year-old Gloria Doby told Politico.
The federal funds allocated on Monday offer something of a silver lining. Sprawling Houston is already preparing to use what the city described as an unprecedented amount in funding from Congress. Rehabilitation and reconstruction for single family homes, buyouts and acquisitions, homeowner reimbursement, and local infrastructure repair are among the agenda items the city is prioritizing.
“[In 2008, Hurricane] Ike was the largest funding amount we got, and even then it was nowhere near the $2 billion that is coming to the city and county this time,” said Daphne Lemelle, the director of Harris County housing and development. “That’s why it’s so significant.”
Houston has indicated that the needs of low-income city residents will be prioritized. But groups like Texas Housers, which filed the suit on Tuesday, don’t seem as convinced. In April, the group argued that 69 percent of low-income homes had their FEMA aide petitions rejected, versus 41 percent of higher-income homes. According to the Texas Tribune, Texas Housers filed a similar complaint in 2010 following Hurricane Ike. That lawsuit was ultimately successful and the state revised its disaster plan accordingly.
Texas Housers did not respond to requests for comment from ThinkProgress regarding their lawsuit filed Tuesday.