Turner 'offended' by state's plan to takeover Harvey aid program

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Mayor Sylvester Turner said Thursday he's "offended" by the state's move to take over federal oversight of millions of dollars allocated for the city's Hurricane Harvey program as the country deals with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Turner said he'll fight to keep control of the city's Harvey rebuilding program, despite the state's plans to take it over due to concerns of slow performance.

"What really has irked me, in the midst of the coronavirus, when the focus is keeping everybody safe, all hands have been on deck, GLO is sending out this notice," Turner said Thursday morning during a press briefing at a mask distribution site. "Will someone please tell the state that there is a virus here that's very deadly?"

13 Investigates first broke the news Wednesday, when Texas General Land Office Commissioner George P. Bush sent a letter to Turner announcing plans to strip the city of control of parts of the $1.2 billion federal Hurricane Harvey housing recovery program, accusing the city of hindering recovery for thousands of 2017 flood victims still waiting for relief years after the storm.

The GLO said the takeover is not an issue that deals with the pandemic as the state agency started talking to Houston about its lack of progress as far back as October.

"At the end of the day, it's about results.The actions are about results," said GLO spokesperson Brittany Eck.

RELATED: 13 Investigates: GLO to control Harvey recovery after Houston 'hindered' aid

For past natural disasters, the GLO led recovery efforts, but following Harvey in August 2017, the City of Houston and Harris County were granted the ability to control their own programs, including application intake and the flow of funds aimed at helping homeowners impacted by the hurricane.

Two years and eight months after the storm, Houston has only awarded 44 reimbursement checks, completed 17 home reconstructions and completed 19 home rehabilitations, according to Houston's Harvey Recovery Situation and Pipeline released March 31.

The GLO is operating its own Harvey recovery aid program across the state and has completed construction on 1,039 homes as of April 17, as part of its Housing Assistance Program.

"While we assumed we would fulfill this responsibility with the cooperation and assistance of the City, all attempts by GLO to assist the City in meeting its performance goals and, more recently, to renegotiate the Contract to allow for a more timely disbursement of allocated funding have been met with consistent opposition by the City," Commissioner Bush said in his letter to Mayor Turner. "Given that only four years remain in the six-year period during which the (Community Development Block Grant - Disaster Recovery) grant must be expended, the GLO can no longer allow the City to hinder the progress of recovery efforts for Houston residents."
The GLO said it has already made calls to thousands of Houstonians who applied for aid through the city's program to start moving their applications forward.

The GLO said it offered to help Houston get its program moving for months and spent $1.5 million in state funds to do it.

Since taking over part of the Houston program in mid-March, the GLO said it has already called 3,000 Houston storm victims that hadn't been contacted by the city after expressing interest in receiving help rebuilding.

Within just three weeks, the GLO said it received 750 complete applications from Houstonians.

In the two years and eight months since Harvey made landfall, Houston's program has approved only 195 homes and 725 homes are still in the inspection, environmental and construction process.

Turner accused the GLO of using the virus as cover and said Houston flood victims will be hurt as a result. The GLO disagrees.

"This is not about politics. This is not about who's in charge. This is about getting homes for those people that need a home that are still in need this long after Hurricane Harvey," Eck said.

Calling the takeover "hostile," Turner pushed back and said the GLO is working from home remotely and "being handsomely paid out of the money for people's housing repair and reconstruction."

"But they are expecting everybody else to be going into people's houses, making the repairs in the midst of the coronavirus," Turner said. "That's the part that irks me the most, and that is, they are acting like there is not a stay home order and we are not having or dealing with this particular virus, which is very deadly and very infectious. And they're seeking to do this under the cover of this virus, and I don't know about you, but I am just offended by what they are doing right now."

Bush's letter said the city will officially be stripped of its responsibilities pending approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which originally allocated the relief aid to the State of Texas and GLO.

Houston can still appeal to HUD and the courts to retain control of the program, but doing so could slow down the program as Houston and the state debate who is in charge.

"We will utilize every means within our arsenal to protect the city's rights and to make sure that the homeowners get what they need," Turner said.

Moving forward, flood victims who have a city caseworker should for now continue to work with them. The GLO is reaching out people who haven't been called yet.

"This will be a period of transition. We hope to make it as smooth as possible for all involved, but we will make that information available," Eck said. "The folks in the 48 counties that we've been successfully administering this program will say that we're very accessible. We want that experience to be the same for Houston and Harris County."

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