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HOUSTON — As the state undertakes what could be the biggest housing recovery in American history after Hurricane Harvey, potentially thousands of Texas renters and homeowners trying to rebuild their lives are in danger of falling through the seams of a patchwork of agencies.
But no one knows how many Texans could get lost in the shuffle — or how much personal wealth they stand to lose.
That's because U.S. disaster recovery efforts are split between a number of government entities, so no single agency is tracking the full extent of destruction the storm wrought on Texas homes. That leaves the Texas General Land Office, which is charged with overseeing the state’s housing recovery efforts, vying for limited long-term relief funds without an exact price tag for damage to private property.
Housing advocates say the lack of quantitative data could set countless residents up for financial ruin once federal funds, which officials also want to use on a wish list of public works projects, start trickling down through several layers of government.
“This is a limited amount of money that is made available to the state, and then the state has to pick winners and losers,” said John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service.
But as thousands remain in temporary housing heading into the holidays, government officials point out that federal disaster funds Congress sends to storm-battered regions aren’t meant to replace everything that was washed away. And even if there was enough money for everyone, officials say they can’t tally the complete housing destruction for a number of reasons: they aren’t required to, they are blocked by federal privacy laws or it’s difficult to get information from private insurance companies.
Instead, agencies use data cobbled together from a number of sources to determine an estimate of what Texas homeowners and renters will need. And not all agencies use the same figures or formulas to reach their projection.
"There is an effort right now to see if we can come up with an estimate that everybody agrees is probably the closest,” said Federal Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Jackie Chandler.
That entity is charged with providing funds for immediate needs, like debris clean-up and temporary housing. And several other agencies use the number of aid applications FEMA processes as the base figure upon which their own damage estimates are determined.
Before FEMA will give any short-term money to Texans, the agency requires aid applicants to state how much damage their insurance provider will cover. It also requires Texans to apply for low-interest housing recovery loans through the Small Business Administration.
So far, FEMA inspectors have conducted inspections on more than 570,000 homes damaged by Harvey. More than 5,000 are left to be inspected. But that agency only handles short-term needs and caps aid at $33,300. It doesn’t attach a price tag to damage that goes beyond that threshold.
So while more than 4,200 Texas families have hit that cap, it’s not known how much more money they would need to fully renovate or rebuild. Such needs generally fall to Housing and Urban Development, which distributes long-term disaster relief funds. One of that agency’s chief responsibilities is to make sure limited federal dollars go to those who need it most, like low-income residents or people without flood insurance who don’t qualify for low-interest government loans.
Texas gets some data, but not all
Of the $51 billion Congress has appropriated to multiple disasters this year, HUD has already earmarked at least $5 billion for long-term recovery efforts in Texas. But the agency hasn’t yet detailed how much has to go to housing compared to infrastructure and how much must benefit low- and moderate-income Texans.
Once HUD releases those parameters, the General Land Office will put together a plan for spending the money. And while Gov. Greg Abbott has charged the land office with handling housing recovery, GLO officials also don’t know the cost required to help all Texans get back to where they were before the storm.
The GLO has an agreement to get some — but not all — data that FEMA collects. GLO officials say that they do not have access to data on Small Business Administration loans, federally funded flood insurance payouts or private insurance coverage. That leaves the state agency in charge of housing recovery without the full picture of housing needs.
“We kind of take that step back and come up with the overall damage,” said Heather Lagrone, a deputy director of the Texas General Land Office. “I won’t say we’re not advocating for the housing need. That is definitely part of the consideration.”
One of the GLO’s primary roles is to ensure disaster relief money is spent within HUD’s guidelines once the funds filter down to local governments.
“It’s not really our job to prioritize the use of funds, exactly,” Lagrone said. “It’s our job to make sure they’re using the funds on eligible activities that tie back to the event.”
Local leaders also in the dark
Meanwhile, the GLO and other state officials have asked HUD not to put a minimum requirement on how much must be spent on housing. Instead, the GLO wants local officials to determine how to split money between housing and public works projects.
And many local officials — including mayors in hard-hit cities along the coast — say they don’t know how bad the housing damage is in their communities because federal privacy laws prevent FEMA from telling them.
Lagrone said local officials can use changes in property values assessed by appraisal districts to determine the extent of Harvey’s damage on homes. But she also said such data mainly provides leaders with an idea of how much tax revenue they will lose due to falling property values — not the market cost to repair homes.
“That would help the locals prioritize the use of their funds and help them decide should they spend the funds available on infrastructure improvements or on housing improvements,” she said.
Such an approach worries housing advocates.
“Sometimes local governments are not the in best position to determine the rebuilding needs of Texas households and they undervalue them,” said Henneberger, the housing advocate.
HUD is expected to release the parameters for the initial $5 billion in long-term recovery funds next month. While state officials asked that the public only be given seven days to comment on plans for the money, Lagrone said her office expects residents will have 14 days to weigh in.
But housing advocates say that’s not enough time to get feedback from residents who, like government officials, don’t have a clear idea on the extent of housing needs.
“That’s the only opportunity where they have to weigh in on how those resources should be used,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Giulia Afiune contributed to this story.
Support for this reporting was provided by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.