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Houston council OKs transfer of Harvey home repair program to Texas General Land Office



TEXAS – City council on Wednesday approved an agreement with the Texas General Land Office that will give the state agency control of the city’s Hurricane Harvey home repair program, or about one-third of its federal recovery funds.

Mayor Sylvester Turner and Land Commissioner George P. Bush agreed on the new plan last month after publicly fighting for control of the home repair funds since April last year. Council had to OK the agreement before it could be sent to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for approval.

Federal housing officials will have 45 days to approve the deal once the General Land Office submits it. The new terms leave the city with $835 million to administer most of its existing Harvey housing programs, including its largest remaining one, an effort to repair and construct affordable multifamily housing projects.

The city also will retain control of its program to buy out and demolish repeatedly flooded homes, along with one for repairing or building new rental properties of up to seven units. And it will receive an additional $10 million to reimburse homeowners who paid out-of-pocket for home repair work.

The deadline to apply for reimbursements was Dec. 31, but Houston Housing Department Director Tom McCasland has said he plans to seek an extension from federal housing officials.

Meanwhile, state officials will now oversee the city’s more-than-$400 million program to repair or replace single-family homes damaged in the storm. By the end of December, the city had finished rebuilding or rehabilitating 164 single-family homes and sent out 119 reimbursement checks, a far slower pace than the single-family home program operated by the General Land Office in the 48 counties affected by Harvey outside Harris County.

GLO officials have argued they could hasten the speed of Houston’s single-family program if it were placed under their control. Turner fought the state agency’s attempt to take control of the funds, filing a lawsuit that went to the Texas Supreme Court in which he argued GLO officials were purposely slow-walking the city’s program to strengthen their argument for taking it over. The GLO has denied the claim.

The city’s single-family program also prioritizes low-income, disabled and senior residents, which Turner and McCasland say is harder and slower but necessary to ensure the most vulnerable storm victims receive help. A Chronicle review of the GLO’s home repair program last year found that 62 percent of applicants approved for home repairs through last July made less than half of the area median income, or roughly $38,000 for a four-person household.

In Houston’s program, 80 percent of accepted repair applicants made less than that amount. If the city’s reimbursements to homeowners who funded repairs themselves are removed, making the comparison more akin to the state’s repair program, the figure rises to 91 percent.

Under the new plan, the General Land Office also is taking control of a portion of the city’s program dedicated to building new homes for low-income Harvey victims in less flood-prone areas. The city will keep $72 million from its single-family program to wrap up existing projects.

Turner did not comment on the agreement at Wednesday’s council meeting. Council members Mike Knox and Greg Travis voted against the deal without comment.

Councilmember Tiffany Thomas, who chairs council’s Housing and Community Affairs Committee, said she is “happy to be back in partnership with the GLO” and lauded the new agreement.

“One of my goals as (chair of the housing committee) has been to advocate for equity and to ensure that we, as a city, receive our fair share in federal funds to properly assist our homeowners and tenants,” Thomas said in a statement. “This $835 million agreement that has been reached with the GLO is a terrific development worth celebrating and will provide the appropriate budget for the City of Houston to follow through on our duty to assist not only homeowners who were affected by Harvey, but to assist renters and homeless individuals, as well.”