‘Maddening, Futile’ FEMA Bureaucracy Prevents Houston’s Poor from Rebuilding After Harvey
Byzantine bureaucracy, discriminatory regulations, and sometimes outright fraud have left thousands of families in low-income and minority communities struggling, and largely failing, to rebuild their homes and lives nine months after Hurricane Harvey, a Politico investigation has found.
While wealthier Houston neighborhoods have largely recovered from the ravages of Harvey, communities like Kashmere Gardens—whose residents have a median annual income of US$23,000—are floundering. “Nearly every street of the 10,000-person neighbourhood has homes that are gutted,” Politico writes. “Empty window panes reveal sparse interiors without walls, doors, or carpets. Doors hang ajar and mould consumes living rooms and kitchens. Signs dot the lawns, promising homeowners that they can quickly sell out and avoid the messy process of rebuilding.”
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Politico’s investigation shows that the difficulties of rebuilding after Harvey began long before someone could even pick up a hammer—with the maddening, often largely futile process of applying for disaster relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
First there is the crazy-quilt complexity of the application system itself, which many FEMA officials acknowledge is in urgent need of renovation. “We’ve got to streamline a very fragmented recovery process,” Administrator Brock Long acknowledged to Congress at an April hearing. “Recovery funding comes from 17 different federal government agencies, and it’s too difficult to understand what you’re entitled to and how to put it to work.”
“The range of options—and the rules and requirements that come with each of them—leaves low-income victims confused and frustrated at some of the most challenging moments of their lives,” writes Politico.
“My impression is that low-income homeowners in Northeast Houston really have no idea what the hell is going on at all. They are very confused,” said relief worker Ben Hirsch. “There’s your FEMA grant and your SBA loan, and PREPS, and DALHR.”
And then there’s the fact that some policies passively discriminate against the poor. Particularly egregious is a formula used to allocate funds from a critical source of disaster relief, the Community Development Block Grant program. Developed to determine “‘serious unmet needs’ after a disaster,” reports Politico, the grant formula regularly finds that “‘homeowners with less than $8,000 in damage or whose home had less than one foot of flooding do not have a ‘serious unmet need’,” while “renters with less than $2,000 in property damage are also excluded.”
That means “about two-thirds of very low-income households are being cut out of ‘unmet needs’,” Charlie Duncan, research director at a low-income housing advocacy non-profit, told Politico, simply because “their homes and belongings aren’t worth much on the open market.”
And then there is the matter of flood insurance. While first-time applicants to FEMA may receive relief if they are uninsured, citizens seeking relief a second time are denied outright if they have failed to insure themselves. In a tragic Catch-22, the flood plains of America are often populated by the poorest of its citizens who simply cannot afford insurance that typically “costs more than 5% of the average family’s budget,” Politico reports.
Pressured by local officials and community groups, Congress “has expressed concern about the affordability of the flood insurance program” but has not yet “proposed specific legislation to fix the issue.”
While some, including FEMA itself, have proposed subsidizing flood insurance for lower-income citizens, Politico says the agency’s own research into the matter has “touched on a tension at the heart of the federal disaster recovery framework: Larger flood insurance subsidies encourage people to live in flood zones, exacerbating the financial challenges within the National Flood Insurance Program, which is $20 billion in debt, even after Congress wiped away $16 billion of its debt last fall.”
Meanwhile, even Kashmere Garden residents “lucky enough to navigate the bureaucracy got an average payout from FEMA of $4,300—too little for some to make even the minimal repairs necessary to make their house habitable,” writes Politico.
The payouts are that low because the law underlying the agency, the Stafford Act, “allows FEMA to provide assistance to restore a house only to ‘a safe and sanitary living or functioning condition.’” Politico’s in-depth reporting shows that FEMA interprets these terms very narrowly.
“Denials are fast and furious,” the paper states, with approximately half of some 740,000 Texan applicants in 2017 being “rejected for any aid at all”—most commonly on the grounds that the home was, according to FEMA standards, “habitable.”
Adding finally to the confusion is the web of home repair companies and non-profits that proliferate in the wake of a disaster like Harvey.
“Often, these groups are well-intentioned,” reports Politico, “but they may lack the knowledge or experience to help with rebuilding, potentially providing bad advice or raising expectations about how quickly a family can move back into their home.”
But low-income disaster victims, “particularly people of colour and immigrants,” also prove “easy marks” for scam artists, and neither local nor state governments typically possess “the resources or manpower necessary to oversee the thousands of contractors that flood into a state seeking work after a disaster.”
Meanwhile, back in Washington, not much is happening to redress the fundamental problem of federal disaster relief. “No one inside the government has taken the time to really sit down long-term and say what is the permanent solution to the challenges we are facing,” said Marion McFadden, vice president at a Houston affordable housing non-profit.
“As much of the south and southwest begin preparing for a 2018 hurricane season that’s predicted to be even worse than 2017,” Politico concludes, “there’s no sense that anything will change to protect politically powerless neighborhoods like Kashmere Gardens—or, for that matter, the many Puerto Rican neighbourhoods still reeling after Hurricane Maria, or low-income areas in the path of some as-yet-unnamed storm.”