New funds available for Harvey housing help
Havalisia Owens will never recover tangible memories such as the family photographs and art her daughters made in elementary school that Tropical Storm Harvey washed away. And more than one contractor has told her that her home, which has started to sink into the land, won’t withstand being elevated.
But a newly opened federal program administered by the Texas General Land Office has the potential to build her a new, raised home so she can stay on the Port Arthur property where many of those memories were made.
“Honestly, I had no idea what I was going to do to fix it,” the mother of two said Wednesday.
The Homeowner Assistance Program — the single largest housing program within the Land Office’s Harvey-recovery plan — is expected to help repair and reconstruct owner-occupied single-family homes damaged by the storm.
Land Commissioner George P. Bush came to Jefferson County Wednesday to talk with Owens, local media and officials about the program and to open a regional office in Beaumont that will help administer it.
The General Land Office allocated $1.098 billion of federal disaster recovery funds to the program, which will go to 48 eligible counties, excluding the city of Houston and Harris County. About $205 million of that will go to Hardin, Orange and Jefferson counties.
“This is an ongoing conversation outside of Houston: What about us?” Bush said, expressing hope that this money will provide another solution to area residents.
Activities potentially eligible for the program include home rehabilitation, reconstruction, new construction, hazard mitigation, elevation and relocation assistance.
Money will be administered on a first-come, first-served basis.
As of Wednesday afternoon, at least 89 people had applied or were working on online applications for the Homeowner Assistance Program.
Owens, whose home belonged to her grandfather and who remembers summers there with her cousins while growing up, said it’s important to her to remain in the neighborhood. When her own grandkids visit, she said, she knows her neighbors will watch out for them.
Community Development and Revitalization Senior Deputy Director Pete Phillips said the Land Office and Bush have used lessons learned in past hurricanes to improve this program’s rollout. For instance, residents can apply for funds online instead of needing to visit an office.
The program also works with state-approved builders and contractors to minimize or eliminate the possibility that contractors won’t finish repairs, honor warranties or create other problems residents have faced in the storm’s aftermath.
It’s also working to keep contractors in the state to ease concerns that there’s too much work for too few workers.
“We have expanded the scope of bandwidth of available contractors to help Texas,” Bush said. “We have a Texas-first strategy to keep as many of our vetted contractors here in the state to help folks get back on their feet.”
Susie Murray, one of the first people to visit the Beaumont office Wednesday, was cautiously optimistic about the project.
She said she applied for money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Harvey but was denied because her flood insurance policy — which cost $2,600 that she couldn’t afford — wasn’t up-to-date.
In the wake of other storms, she’s tried to get help from government agencies but the reality never lived up to the promises she’d heard politicians make or seen advertised on television.
“I just want them to tell me right off the bat if they can’t help me,” she said. “Don’t build up my hopes.”
Bush said his office understands fatigue that comes from trying to find help from multiple agencies. As a result, it’s pursuing more than one program to form a “tailored approach” for people looking for help.
“We agree, the navigation across different paperwork and agencies is confusing,” he said. “But we are making this about as consumer-friendly as possible.”
The General Land Office is administering $5.734 billion in federal long-term disaster recovery funds in the state. This money will go to housing, infrastructure and state and local planning programs.
Other programs include local buyouts, homeowner reimbursement and the multifamily housing repair program.
The Land Office is also waiting for direction on how to administer an additional $4.7 billion in federal disaster relief funds.