Shared from the 3/9/2022 Houston Chronicle eEdition

HUD points to discrimination when state denied flood aid to city, county

Godofredo A. Vásquez /Staff photographer

Doris Brown filed a civil rights complaint with HUD over GLO’s recent distribution of Harvey mitigation funds.

Photos by Godofredo A. Vásquez / Staff photographer

The complaint by Doris Brown, an organizer with the Northeast Action Collective, resulted in a finding Tuesday that the GLO discriminated against communities of color, which could redirect millions in funds to Houston.


“We just got sick and tired of flooding all the time. It just got worse as time went on, and then they didn’t do what they were supposed to do with the disbursement of the money,” Brown said.

In a decision that could redirect millions of dollars in flood relief to Houston, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found the Texas General Land Office discriminated against minority residents and ran afoul of federal civil rights protections when it denied flood mitigation aid last May to the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Harvey.

The finding concerns the state agency’s process to dole out more than $2 billion in federal funds, awarded to Texas in early 2018, to pay for projects aimed at tempering the effect of future storms. The GLO held a competition and developed scoring criteria to select recipients because there were not enough funds to cover every project sought in the 49 eligible Texas counties.

Though Houston and Harris County expected to receive roughly half the funds, matching their share of the damage, the land office — led by Land Commissioner George P. Bush — initially awarded nothing to the city and county. Bush, facing bipartisan criticism from Houston-area officials, later asked federal officials to send Harris County $750 million in flood mitigation aid. The total still fell short of the funding sought by local officials, however, and it remains unclear when — and if — the money will arrive. The feds have not yet approved the state’s amendments to its plan.

Prompted by a complaint filed last year by two local advocacy groups, the Biden administration investigated the GLO’s distribution of the Harvey funds, focusing on the complaint’s allegation that Bush’s agency “discriminated on the basis of race and national origin through the use of scoring criteria that substantially disadvantaged Black and Hispanic residents.”

In a 13-page finding, HUD said the process that resulted in the exclusion of Houston and Harris County “caused there to be disproportionately less funding available to benefit minority residents than was available to benefit white residents.”

The federal agency pointed to two decisions it said had disproportionate impacts on communities of color. For one, HUD singled out a scoring metric that effectively penalized large jurisdictions, such as Houston, by measuring what percentage of an applicant’s residents would benefit from a project.

“The city of Iola applied for a project benefiting 379 people. This project received 10 points out of 10, because Iola has only 379 residents,” the finding raised as one example. “The city of Houston applied for a project benefiting 8,845 people in the Kashmere Gardens neighborhood. This project received 0.37 out of 10 points, because Houston has approximately 2.3 million residents.”

A Chronicle investigation last June found the aid disproportionately flowed to rural counties, largely due to the metric that disadvantaged urban communities. It also found recipients of the funds had lower risks of natural disasters, by the state’s own measure, and would fund projects that help fewer residents per dollar than unfunded projects.

Harris County officials have argued that with more than 20 watersheds and a population of over 4.5 million, the county stood little chance of scoring competitively under that category. Houston officials had warned that the metric would punish urban centers — with more diverse populations — as early as January 2020.

Federal housing officials concurred, finding the criterion “disadvantaged larger population jurisdictions” where minority residents are more likely to reside.

“Quite frankly, it’s what those of us at the city, and at Harris County, have been saying for quite some time,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said Tuesday.

HUD also said the GLO unfairly divided the competition into two uneven categories: the most impacted and distressed areas as defined by HUD, an area that included Houston and Harris County; and more rural counties that also got a presidential disaster declaration.

Both categories fought for separate pots of essentially equal money. That meant about $500 million was available for residents in the most distressed areas, and $500 million available to counties added by the state.

‘Contrary’ to the purpose

The most distressed areas, though, had eight times as many residents as those identified by the state. They also had 90 percent of the minority residents in the entire eligible population.

“Specifically, approximately $458 per resident was made available to State MID applicants, while just $62 per resident was made available to HUD MID applicants,” HUD wrote. “Put differently, State MID areas were eligible for seven and a half times the funding per resident than HUD MID areas.”

The GLO claimed it was following a HUD rule that at least 50 percent of funds benefit the most distressed areas. The finding, though, said the division of the process into two competitions was “unrelated to, and in fact contrary to” the purpose of the funds.

“HUD’s requirement is a floor, not a ceiling, and provides no support for the GLO’s decision,” the finding said. “GLO had articulated no other purpose of the exclusion.”

In response to the findings, federal housing officials instructed the GLO and local officials to resolve the issue through a formal agreement under which the state agency would be required to “address the discriminatory outcomes of the competition as well as adopt enhanced fair housing planning and monitoring metrics.”

“If a voluntary resolution cannot be obtained, HUD may initiate administrative proceedings or refer this matter to the United States Department of Justice for judicial enforcement,” the finding reads.

The document was signed by Christina Lewis, a regional director for HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.

Advocates with Texas Housers and the Northeast Action Collective gathered after the GLO announced the first round of funding, which skirted Houston, Harris County, Port Arthur, and Beaumont, among other population centers. They decided to research the process and were disturbed by what they found, said David Wheaton, the advocacy director for Texas Housers.

“We knew there was something wrong with that,” Wheaton said. The groups then filed the complaint that sparked HUD’s investigation. “It was something we knew, but it was great to have HUD put that in writing.”

‘Sick and tired’

Doris Brown, an organizer with the Northeast Action Collective, said the finding was vindicating. Brown said she and her neighbors flood constantly and rarely factor into government decisions on mitigation, a trend that makes them feel like leaders have decided they are “expendable.”

“When they announced everything, we were all left out…,” Brown said. “We just got sick and tired of flooding all the time. It just got worse as time went on, and then they didn’t do what they were supposed to do with the disbursement of the money. It was a discriminatory process.”

General Land Office spokeswoman Brittany Eck slammed the federal housing agency for “once again politicizing mitigation” and said the GLO could file a lawsuit over the findings.

The GLO administered its program in accordance with HUD guidance and the HUD-approved action plan,” Eck said in a statement. “The GLO is considering all options, including legal action against HUD, to release this iron-fisted grip on mitigation funding and restore the pipeline of funds to communities.”

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, said minority communities have been overlooked for too long when it comes to preparing for disasters.

“It’s not complicated: Harris County was ground zero for the heartbreaking impacts of Hurricane Harvey, and continues to be exceedingly vulnerable,” Hidalgo said. “The share of mitigation funds we receive from the federal government should reflect that reality.”

Bush, a Republican, is running for attorney general and is in a May primary runoff against incumbent Ken Paxton.

Paxton’s campaign recently published a website that attacks Bush’s handling of Hurricane Harvey recovery as “a complete and utter disaster for struggling Texans,” while highlighting the denial of mitigation aid to Houston.

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