Houstonian in 'shock' after city's response to housing program

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The one-story red brick home that used to sit near the intersection of Cheeves Drive and Caddo Road in northeast Houston brought Lloyd Nelms' family together for decades.

It's the house where everyone gathered when his great-grandmother died in 1994. A year later, relatives from California, Minnesota, Illinois and Louisiana took over the neighborhood for a family reunion. When Nelms' parents died, it's the house he inherited and where he gathered every Sunday after church with his nieces and nephews.

But as storm after storm kept wearing Nelms' home down, he said he decided to apply for the city's Minor Critical Emergency Home Repair Program in 2016. As he waited for help, Hurricane Harvey hit in August 2017.

In May 2020, the Texas General Land Office reached out to Nelms after launching its own state-operated Harvey repair program for Houstonians. Nelms, tired of waiting for help from the city, filled out all the paperwork and within weeks, the GLO demolished his storm-damaged house and built a new one in its place.

Nelms said when the city sent a contractor to his home on Aug. 26, 2020 -- four years after he applied to the non-Harvey program and months after the GLO rebuilt his house -- he turned them down.

"I was in complete and utter shock," Nelms told 13 Investigates. "My house was already built."

The city of Houston wouldn't say why Nelms never received help from the emergency repair program he applied to in 2016, or why it sent out contractors after Nelms' house had already been rebuilt by the GLO.

Watch the full investigation at 10 p.m. today on ABC13.

The city also wouldn't clarify how many residents applied for that non-Harvey program and are still waiting for aid.

"We strive to have timely engagement with those in the community that seek assistance. We recognize there are occasions when our response time may fall short of the homeowner's expectation, as well as our own. We appreciate homeowners bringing these situations to our attention; they help us identify areas that we need to strengthen to improve our services to the Houston community," the city said in a statement to 13 Investigates on Wednesday.

The city told us the Minor Critical Emergency Home Repair Program ended in January 2018 and any applicant who wasn't served by that program was contacted to fill out paperwork for another housing repair program.

The city said the emergency repair program Nelms initially applied to served 1,301 families in nearly two and a half years, including interior repairs, electrical and plumbing, roof and exterior repairs.

"[The City of Houston Housing and Community Development Department] recognizes that there is a tremendous need for home repair and affordable home options for low-income seniors, disabled individuals and working families. Under this administration, more than 1,000 homes have been repaired, rebuilt, newly built or purchased with assistance from the City's housing department. With additional funding, we anticipate nearly 2,000 more families will benefit from these programs in the next three years," the city said in a statement.

But the number of residents who received help is confusing since they told the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development they made just 56 home repairs in all of 2019. In an annual performance and evaluation report to the federal government, the city says it did not meet its five-year goal due to "challenges with contract payment terms and conditions, establishing new guidelines, and five natural disasters, which slowed the program's progress."

State takeover

The program Nelms applied to was a "non-Harvey" housing repair program, and the city said he withdrew his application. Nelms said he withdrew from the program in August 2020, after the GLO already rebuilt his home.

Nelms was one of the first residents the GLO helped in Houston.

RELATED: Houston's Harvey recovery program now in state hands

Unlike the GLO's program, where residents can directly apply online, in Houston, homeowners have to be invited to apply to the city's Harvey Homeowner Assistance Program. Although he was never invited to apply to the city's Harvey program, Nelms said he filled out a survey expressing interest in it. The GLO said it got Nelms' contact information from the city during the takeover.

Less than half of the 21,219 people who expressed interest in the Houston Harvey program were invited to apply and only 273 people have received aid, including 131 reconstructions, 25 rehabilitations and issued 88 reimbursement checks, as well as 29 additional residents who received both rehabilitation and reimbursement.

The GLO, which granted the Houston authority to operate its own Harvey housing program with federal funds, wasn't pleased with how many residents the city was helping. So, in April 2020, GLO Commissioner George P. Bush sent a letter to Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner issuing a "notice of intent to eliminate funding" and end city oversight of Harvey recovery aid.

At the time, the city had helped just 80 residents with reimbursements and home repairs or rebuilds.

"The GLO can no longer allow the City to hinder the progress of recovery efforts for Houston residents," Bush said in the letter to Turner.

Mayor Turner responded by calling the takeover "hostile" and the city filed a lawsuit to prevent the GLO from "illegally taking control of $1.27 billion in disaster relief funds" for Harvey storm victims.

In August 2020, a ruling by the Texas Supreme Court allowed the GLO to move forward with the takeover.

RELATED: 13 Investigates: State starts Harvey recovery program amid Houston's slow progress

Fifth Ward resident Clara Logan was among the thousands of Houstonians who filled out paperwork with the city. She received an email on Jan. 28 that her application was being transferred to the GLO.

Logan said she got so far in the process with the city's program, that she was looking at floor plans and colors and started bragging to her friends that she was getting a new house. She said her application never went anywhere after that. Now, she hopes the GLO doesn't let her down, too.

"I'm hoping that they come on and get through with it before time runs out on us," Logan said. "This was a long wait, a long process. Just come on, please, don't forget about us."

During the takeover, the GLO said the city of Houston shared 48,000 documents related to Harvey homeowner repair applications in December and another 30,000 files last month. But, the GLO said the "data dump" was hard to organize since the documents "didn't have any discernible naming conventions, they weren't grouped by applicant and they weren't searchable."

Still, the state agency has made progress, approving 359 applications since it took over. The GLO has completed just 21 home rebuilds so far as they battle what they admit is "application fatigue."

The GLO also took over Harris County's housing program, but said the county is cooperating. The county's latest report shows 167 home repairs with GLO approval and 655 reimbursements that have been approved by the GLO.

As she waits for help, Logan said she's thankful to have a roof over her head and that she's not homeless, but knows her house is in need of repairs - the floor boards might give away anytime, and several of the electrical outlets don't work.

She said she's had days where she's so angry and frustrated it makes her cry, but she's trying to be patient and hopeful someone will help.

"Don't forget about us. We're still here, we're still waiting," Logan said. "We're waiting on the help."

Nelms said he knows how much of a difference a new home can make and hopes his neighbors get the help they need. Before getting a new home, Nelms said his kitchen cabinets turned into a waterfall every time there was a storm, with rain filling up a pot on the top shelf, and dripping down to a bowl on the counter and then onto the floor.

Just about every room had some sort of leak, he said. Now, he's glad he doesn't have to worry about that anymore.

"The rain now is music to my ears instead of pain to my heart and stress to my body," Nelms said.

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