4 Years Later, Texas Housing Agency Says Rita Aid Pace Picking Up

By | September 28, 2009

Hundreds of southeast Texans displaced by Hurricane Rita four years ago are still waiting for new federally funded homes to be built while a state agency tries to spend the housing construction money it has a little faster.

Those waiting residents are living with relatives or in trailers, rental property or their dilapidated, blue-tarped houses damaged when the storm struck Sept. 24, 2005. Hurricane Ike further wrecked the region on Sept. 13 last year.

So far, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs has spent only 38.5 percent of a $428 million federal allotment that arrived in 2007, agency executive director Michael Gerber confirmed this week.

“I think we’re making really strong headway,” said Gerber, who blames federal environmental, historic preservation and proof-of-ownership regulations for much of the delay. “It certainly took some time to ramp up the program. Hurricane Ike caught us in between and that caused delays and it changed the flood maps for the region.”

Gov. Rick Perry’s office acknowledges home construction time for Rita victims has taken too long and said state officials have tried to keep Hurricane Ike victims from facing similar roadblocks.

“You can never rebuild a community that’s been devastated by a storm fast enough,” said Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle. “Hurricane Rita at the time was the largest recovery effort ever undertaken by the state. We learned from it.”

Among the steps state officials have taken to improve post-hurricane aid was passage of legislation this year by Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, streamlining the path for confirming title to a home, Castle said.

Texas’ first round of federal Rita relief money – providing $40 million for housing – is 85 percent spent. Those dollars were distributed through local governmental councils.

The state is using much of the second batch of money to pay for home construction through private-sector contractors.

“We’re not simply cutting a check to people and then trusting it to them to use the dollars the right way, because as we’ve seen in other states that’s been a significant problem. We’ve instead built a system with lots of integrity to it,” Gerber said.

Perry’s office has voiced concerns about misuse of relief money in Louisiana and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.

Though progress is being made now in home-building, it took too much time to get the Rita housing money moving, said state Rep. Joe Deshotel, a Beaumont Democrat who says federal, state and local bureaucracy are responsible. Deshotel said it would have been better to give homeowners or nonprofit organizations the government money, with accountability rules in place, and allow them to arrange repairs and rebuilding.

“No question it has taken too long,” Deshotel said. “I think the people involved have learned a whole lot.”

In some cases, he said, roof damage or other problems caused by Hurricane Rita could have been repaired if addressed quickly, but mildew and other troubles over time caused houses to deteriorate to the point that some need rebuilding.

“The people could have fixed their homes if they had money,” Deshotel said. “But they (state officials) are so scared that somebody’s going to get a dime they shouldn’t have gotten, nobody gets anything for three years.”

Hurricane Rita victims also found themselves frustrated at having to fill out too many applications for assistance, he said.

Of the estimated 2,500 to 2,800 houses to be built in the program, 516 are under construction and 336 are complete, Gerber said. The houses cost from $60,000 to $75,000, and money is paid out after construction, he said.

Construction begins on about 40 homes each week and is completed on about 30. Gerber said the agency is trying to step up the rate of completion.

The homebuilding part of the federal money accounts for $222 million. One portion is dedicated solely for the hard-hit community of Sabine Pass, the tiny coastal town where Hurricane Rita made landfall. Other chunks of the $428 million allocation are being used to build rental apartment units, make infrastructure repairs and pay for services to help Hurricane Katrina evacuees who relocated to Houston.

State Auditor’s Office reports have questioned the time it has taken to spend the Rita home-building money, but said the state Department of Housing and Community Affairs enacted earlier auditor recommendations for the funds.

Gerber said he expects all home construction to be complete by late 2010.

“We believe people have waited long enough, and we want to get these homes built as quickly as we can,” he said. “For those that are still waiting, help is on the way.”

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