In the days leading up to what became the U.S.’s second most devastating hurricane, tropical depression Harvey was being watched with a keen eye by many. Texans are not strangers to severe weather, be it scorching summer heat, torrential spring flooding, or the unpredictability of the annual hurricane season. Every June to October is the time of the year where we swap southern hospitality for crankiness, cursing the relentless sun, and begin speculating as to what this year’s hurricane season might bring. While it is not unusual to forget just how hot it gets by late July, Texans rarely forget about (and often rely on) the storms brought on as summer begins to wane. It is important to remember how powerful these storms can be and how much damage is possible.
In August of 2017 these expectations were no different but were greatly exceeded. Escalating rapidly from tropic depression to Category 4 Hurricane, Harvey brought unprecedented rainfall that caused severe flash flooding, overloading local waterways for four consecutive days. By hour 12, the amount of rainfall ranged between a 1% event (100-year flood) and a .02% event (500 year flood), with many areas seeing even greater quantities of rainfall. Harris County alone was inundated by 1 trillion gallons of rainfall, which is enough water to run Niagara Falls for 15 days, according to the Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD).
HCFCD has further reported that the severity of Harvey’s relentless downpour over a 4-day period surpassed 17 of 18 state historical storm records. The amount of rain and the amount of space covered was more significant than any other storm experienced in the US on record. The repercussions of such intense prolonged rainfall were felt immediately by scores of local residents and property owners. The damage caused by Hurricane Harvey is estimated at approximately $125 billion, second only to Hurricane Katrina and dwarfing previous U.S. hurricanes, reported by Jeff Lindner of the HCFCD. Hurricane Harvey caused profound loss of life and home, with an estimated 68 deaths statewide and with approximately 155,000 homes and up to 15,000 rental units flooded/damaged in Harris County alone, reported by Lindner. The after-effects of Harvey will continue to impact how we consider the resiliency of our cities and the way we collectively prevent, react to, and recover from wide-scale disaster. As part of the collective effort to recover and further strengthen the resiliency of the area, local developers and organizations can help by pursuing disaster relief funding and disaster-related housing opportunities for long-term pursuit of community revitalization.
The Road to Harvey Recovery Funds
As local, state, and national organizations continue to work towards establishing a foundation for substantive recovery, their efforts were not without complication. More than 890,000 families applied for FEMA disaster relief aid in the months following Harvey, according to Brian Formby of the Texas Tribune. During this same time, donations of approximately $123.7 million came from private sources funneled through the J.J. Watt Foundation and Rebuild Texas Fund, detailed by Morgan Smith of the Texas Tribune, in addition to aid from FEMA. While FEMA and private funding helped address immediate needs, neither source was designed for nor intended to facilitate long-term recovery. In response to strained funding availability, local governmental representatives and community organizations have remained steadfast in their call for greater Federal assistance to fund necessary recovery efforts. This sentiment clearly resonates with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, whose words welcome visitors to the City of Houston’s Post-Harvey public information website:
“By itself, Harvey represents the largest housing disaster in American history, and we cannot effectively recover without federal support… Houston has come to the aid of other Gulf Coast communities in their time of need and represents an essential hub for American energy, medical treatment, shipping, aerospace, and trade. Working with our Congressional delegation, we need the federal government to come to our aide to help build a more resilient city that has learned the lessons of Harvey.”
The resounding call for federal assistance by area officials and community organizations did not fall on deaf ears. As a collaboration of Texas legislators from both parties spearheaded Congressional approval for a series of relief finance efforts, the Department of Housing and Urban Affairs authorized two installments of relief aid specifically for Texas, each around $5 billion, in November 2017 and April 2018. This money will be administered through the Texas General Land Office (GLO), which is managing Harvey housing recovery, according to the Houston Chronicle. These funds for hurricane recovery and mitigation projects will be dispersed over the next six years. The total funding allocated for Hurricane Harvey Recovery efforts to date for the state of Texas is a little more than $10 billion dollars. In comparison, the federal funding for Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts was roughly $115 billion dollars, reported by Ryan Struyk of CNN.
Opportunity in Post-Harvey Re-Building
Federal funds will be distributed in the form of Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). The $5 billion will be used for homeowner and rental assistance and local infrastructure planning and revitalization, stated in the GLO’s State of Texas Plan for Disaster Recovery: Hurricane Harvey, Round 1, (see Plan Allocation Budget breakdown). The Round 2 funding plan will be determined in the near future.
According to Christina Rosales of Texas Housers, in the past, FEMA aid typically favors homeowners, leaving rental tenants and property owners without assistance to rebuild after disaster strikes. This leaves a precarious gap in coverage, as damage to rental properties was no less severe. Focusing on the Affordable Rental Program, the state will provide $250 million for “rehabilitation, reconstruction, and new construction of affordable multi-family housing projects in areas impacted by Hurricane Harvey” per GLO State Action Plan. The CDBG allocated funds specifically target construction efforts for extremely low-income renters in high opportunity zones. The Texas Gulf Coast: Harvey Impact map shows the quantity of Harvey-damaged rental homes across the FEMA emergency designated counties. The map also displays the HUD Qualified Census Tracts (QCTs) and Difficult Development Areas (DDAs), shaded in yellow and green (with damaged rental properties represented in pink). Locating affordable housing projects in these areas can offer residential developers additional competitive advantages toward acquiring Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), which helps to mitigate affordable housing development costs.
According to the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey 5-year estimates, residents living in the shaded areas typically have incomes less than 60% of the Area Median Household Income (AMHI) or around $37,000 for the Houston MSA. Many of the residents living in these areas are the same emergency responders who were vital in lessening the impact of such a severe event. The first round of funding provides the opportunity for not only new development but also rehabilitation of damaged homes. Construction of more affordable housing units in Harvey affected/LIHTC competitive areas could provide developers up to a 30% boost in housing project viability when bidding for the competitive 9% or non-competitive 4% tax credits. When a natural disaster strikes, the resulting confusion, chaos, and tragedy may often feel out of the control for all affected. It is the job of the housing community to show that in recovery, we can do better. Both public and private businesses as well as local organizations can partner together to help provide more affordable permanent housing and rebuild a more equitable city.
Local Voice in Community Recovery
Of the first allocation of $5 billion, the City of Houston and Harris County will each receive over $1 billion, with the remaining funds distributed to the remaining affected counties. Houston is the only affected area that will administer its own housing recovery program. “We’re thrilled with the response by the state […]. This is an opportunity to think big. This is an opportunity to ask questions about the kind of city we want to be moving forward, and to have the resources to make those changes,” Houston Housing Director Tom McCasland said.
Houston Housing Director Tom McCasland said. Local knowledge and experiences helping to guide disaster recovery efforts are exactly what is in need. Non-profit organizations like Texas Housers and West Street Recovery are on the ground level listening to and assisting residents to navigate complex administrative systems to find the program or policy that would best serve each individual or family. Inconsistent responses to questions about required documentation and long wait times or delays to access funding are a common experience for communities across the area. In addition, residents with existing damage from past hurricanes such as Ike or Rita are facing barriers to funding from FEMA and local organizations. These concerns are consistent with views articulated by both Texas Housers and West Street Recovery. As expressed by Ben Hirsch of West Street Recovery, “Everyone deserves a dignified home.” Consistent coordination and clear communication would greatly help struggling residents navigate these systems.
In a May 2018 GLO press release, the Houston Housing and Community Development Department noted they will be partnering with community groups on a series of upcoming public outreach meetings to garner input from residents about long-term housing recovery and priorities for rebuilding Houston. “Our goal from the beginning, and to this day, remains to get families back into their homes as quickly as possible, and the State of Texas will continue to be relentless in our efforts until that goal is achieved,” said Governor Greg Abbott in a press release from GLO.
The Resilient Spirit of Texas
The work done by public and private responders, as well as a slew of dedicated Texans from around the area, was remarkable. Federal agencies charged with response deployed over 30,000 personnel, resulting in the rescue of over 20,000 people and 1,621 pets. Within 9 days, these teams helped deliver 5.1 million meals, 4.5 million liters of water, and 20,000 tarps, according to the GLO. FEMA was joined by the American Red Cross and over 300 service-based organizations to bolster the response and assistance to over 100,000 people.
Perhaps the most remarkable response to Hurricane Harvey was the role played by Texans from across the state. After Harvey pursued its course of devastation across the south Texas coast, social media brought glimmers of hope and compassion as people around the world watched Texas sized trucks and private boats, operated by private citizens, pull stranded motorists out of torrentially flooding waters. Aided by funds distributed to the remaining affected counties. Houston is the only affected area that will administer its own housing recovery program. “We’re thrilled with the response by the state […]. This is an opportunity to think big. This is an opportunity to ask questions about the kind of city we want to be moving forward, and to have the resources to make those changes,” Houston Housing Director Tom McCasland said. Local knowledge and experiences helping to guide disaster recovery efforts are exactly what is in need. Non-profit organizations like Texas Housers and West Street Recovery are on the ground level listening to and assisting residents to navigate complex administrative systems to find the program or policy that would best serve each individual or family. Inconsistent responses to questions about required documentation and long wait times or delays to access funding are a common experience for communities across the area. In addition, residents with existing damage from past hurricanes such as Ike or Rita are facing barriers to funding from FEMA and local organizations. These concerns are consistent with views articulated by both Texas Housers and West Street Recovery. As expressed by Ben Hirsch of West Street Recovery, “Everyone deserves a dignified home.” Consistent coordination and clear communication would greatly help struggling residents navigate these systems. technology not previously available in similar scale disasters, such as Facebook and Twitter, citizens covered ground that governmental actors could not, facing disaster with a classic “can do” Texas attitude. In the words of Houston Police Captain Yasar Bashir, “We can’t do it all. It’s because of the citizens that we were able to get everyone out.”
Approaching the one year anniversary of Harvey, the tireless hard work of Texas families still struggling to recover continues. Recovery takes years. Also, it requires making assistance a priority from all available resources.
“With the legislative session approaching, everything related to Harvey must be an emergency item. The road to recovery for our constituents has been long and tenuous and we must do everything we can to expedite the process so that they can rebuild their homes and get on with their lives.”
From high ranking officials to residential developers to local organizations and volunteers, collaboration is key for proper long-term recovery. In doing our part, the role of residential development is vital to these efforts, whether that be through rehabilitation of existing stock or new construction of high quality disaster resilient housing. Coupled with the right funded opportunities, we can help to support Texans as they work toward normalcy. Real change is within our reach and we are up for the job. How do we know this? Because we will continue to be TEXAS STRONG.