Homeowners pause construction while Houston and GLO fight over Hurricane Harvey program

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner stood alongside members of the Pleasantville, Sagemont and Studewood communities as he asked the federal government for more oversight to ensure the state's program for Hurricane Harvey victims is equitable.

Turner and the Texas General Land Office, which took over the city's Homeowner Assistance Program, disagree on how to help residents when rebuilding their homes as part of a billion-dollar disaster recovery program following the storm in August 2017.

On Monday, Turner said the state is shortchanging residents by building fewer bedrooms than they had when the storm hit, lowering the home's value and diminishing the community.

"These scenarios are being played out all across our city," Turner said. "All these residents deserve better. These neighborhoods deserve better. They deserve to be treated equally and with respect. Their concerns should be heard by the GLO and by (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) and these residents are not asking for the moon."

Turner said the distribution of funds isn't equitable, citing a seven-bedroom home the GLO's program built for a Kingwood resident who only had four bedrooms before the storm hit.

The GLO previously said that's because 11 people will live in that home.

RELATED: Texas rebuilds Kingwood family's home 4 years after Hurricane Harvey

Texas General Land Office spokesperson Brittany Eck said the disaster recovery program is designed to build storm victims the homes they need based on the number of residents who live there, so if only one resident will live in the home, they can rebuild it as a two-bedroom home even if it was three bedrooms before the storm.

Turner says residents want their homes to be built back to the original square footage and bedrooms they had before the storm.

In Pleasantville, a historically Black neighborhood on the northeast side of Houston founded in 1948, resident Mary Fontenot says the GLO is proposing two-bedroom homes without garages and elevated by piers, rather than homes elevated on slabs.

She claims it goes against the community's deed from when it was first established and will decrease the property's value.

"Can you imagine owning a home for 30 or 40 years? Life happens, you need to have your home rebuilt but then the GLO comes in or an entity comes in and they say guess what, we're going to reduce the size of your home," Fontenot said on Monday. "Then you start thinking about the equity I had in my home. What happens to that?"

Eck said the deed restrictions for that community do not mandate that a garage can be built with the home, just that it can be built.

She added that nearly 60 homes in the Pleasantville neighborhood have been approved for construction.

SEE ALSO: GLO fund distribution a 'failed attempt' to pit city, county against each other

Turner also accused the GLO of not equitably distributing aid to Harvey-damaged victims. He said he doesn't want to battle the GLO alone and called on HUD to step in.

"I'm asking that at HUD and the other federal officials responsible for overseeing the GLO take note that this decision to downsize homes for mostly senior homeowners in many communities, many of them predominantly minority communities, is a decision that disproportionately impacts individuals protected under the Fair Housing Act and in some cases it's not just about reducing the number of bedrooms," Turner said.

Eck said that's not true, citing that 80% of homes are built in low to moderate income neighborhoods - 10% higher than HUD's minimum requirements.

She also said 71% of residents helped by its homeowner program are Hispanic or Black and that only 22% are white.

Typically, long-term disaster recovery efforts run by the GLO, but Houston asked to receive direct allocation of $1.2 billion to rebuild Harvey-damaged homes.

SEE ALSO: Harris County and Houston left out of $1 billion in flood mitigation aid

Last year, GLO Commissioner George P. Bush sent a letter to Turner saying he "can no longer allow the city to hinder the progress of recovery efforts for Houston residents," citing slow progress with the program.

Even before taking over the program, Turner and the GLO were at odds over the requirements of what size homes can be built, with the city saying it would pay for the third bedroom with its own funds if the GLO would only approve two-bedroom homes for some residents.

Now, without control of the program, Turner is calling on the federal government to monitor the GLO's progress.

"HUD has been absent for too long in this process in overseeing this program," Turner said. "After a hiatus of nearly four years, we're asking HUD to step up and properly oversee the GLO disaster recovery program so that Houston's most vulnerable citizens, our senior citizens and others are not left behind and so that protected classes under the Fair Housing Act are not disproportionately disadvantaged."

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