Harvey housing aid program delayed over vacancy provision
Houston City Council for the second straight week delayed voting on contract documents Wednesday that homeowners must sign to participate in an assistance program for Hurricane Harvey victims.
At issue is a provision in the contracts requiring participants to secure permission from the city’s Housing and Community Development Department if they leave their residence for more than 90 straight days. Housing officials say the requirement exists in part to deter people from profiting off the recovery program by living elsewhere and renting out their rehabilitated or reconstructed homes.
At-Large Councilwoman Amanda Edwards, however, contended the provision is overly burdensome and unreasonable. The city, she said, could choose a different mechanism to certify that people still live in their homes. She proposed an amendment Wednesday that would remove the requirement for people to obtain permission when leaving their homes for extended periods.
“People have worked their lives to own their homes,” Edwards said. “And so, to ask for permission to be able to leave for a three-month period, I think is excessive and unnecessary and insulting, in light of all that our residents have been through.”
The program, funded with federal housing grant money and administered by the Texas General Land Office, will reimburse homeowners for repair work and provide aid for rehabilitation and reconstruction managed by the city or homeowner.
Aside from ensuring that people are not gaming the system, Housing Director Tom McCasland said the provision intends to prevent taxpayer-repaired homes from being damaged again if they sit vacant. He compared the requirement to similar clauses in mortgage or insurance contracts, in which rates rise dramatically if someone lives outside their home because vacant property is a “sitting target for vandalism.”
“It’s ensuring that these homes, as they’re repaired, are being used for their intended purposes,” McCasland said. “When the city invests this much money in a property, we want to make sure that someone is there, and that it’s not being abandoned.”
Mayor Sylvester Turner pushed back on Edwards’ contention that the provision is unreasonable.
“Think about it,” Turner said. “You’re getting $80,000 to repair your home, and then you’re gone for three months. Why are you gone for three months? If you’re sick, or for whatever reason, you just notify us.”
The mayor told reporters after the meeting he was confident council would approve the item at next week’s meeting, the third time it will be on the agenda.
The agenda item and Edwards’ amendment ultimately were tagged by District J Councilman Mike Laster to allow council members more time to understand the contracts.
The vote marks the last action city council must take to approve the recovery program. Council members are considering the program’s loan agreements, promissory notes, deeds of trust and grant acknowledgment documents.
The housing department has those documents in place for a few homeowners who are waiting for approval to sign, McCasland said.
Under the program, families earning 80 percent or less of the area median income can receive up to $80,000 in reimbursement funds, though the total can go higher at the discretion of city officials.
Households earning up to 120 percent of the area median — about $90,000 for a family of four — can receive up to $40,000 in reimbursement, while those earning more than 120 percent of the area median are capped at $20,000.
Participants otherwise can receive up to $80,000 worth of rehab work, or $200,000 for a newly constructed home. The program lifts those caps if a home needs to be elevated or otherwise made more resilient for future floods.
The housing department is not applying the 90-day provision to homes capped at $20,000, McCasland said, because far fewer tax dollars are being spent there than on other homes.
On top of the 90-day requirement, McCasland said, the city performs an annual check-in to certify that a home still is the owner’s primary residence. Edwards said she thought that provided adequate enforcement.
“I don’t know why this particular provision is something that’s being held so tightly to,” Edwards said. “I don’t understand that.”
Turner framed the requirement as a “check and balance procedure” that is “not intended to be onerous,” a point McCasland echoed.
“We’re not looking to nail anyone,” McCasland said. “We’re looking to make sure people remain in their homes.”