City seeks $2b more to help housing recover from Hurricane Harvey

October 17, 2018

The City of Houston is preparing to ask Congress to appropriate $2 billion more the help residents whose homes were damaged by Hurricane Harvey — a request likely to coincide with lawmakers’ consideration of aid toe victims of hurricanes Florence and Michael, which devastated sections of North Carolina and Florida.

The city, taking a novel approach, is basing its request off of a new study that departs from traditional methods of calculating need — namely, by including people who may not have received or applied for FEMA individual assistance. To determine whether additional aid is needed, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development uses FEMA individual assistance as the basis for estimating how many households were affected by the disaster and what their losses were.

“We’ve heard story after story of people who tried to raise their hands (for federal aid) and they were denied and denied and denied,” said Tom McCasland, director of the Houston Housing and Community Development Department. “That’s why it’s important not to start with FEMA.”

IN-DEPTH: Houston Chronicle’s investigative team explores Harvey and its impact on the city.

Houston has based its analysis on flood modeling that uses data points such as drone imagery of the storm and flooding. The Housing and Community Development Department now has maps of every lot and building in the city with blue shading representing which areas were likely submerged.

Then, instead of relying on the level of flooding to estimate the damage inflicted on a building and its contents (the HUD methodology estimated $58,956 of unmet need for a home with one to four feet of flooding, $72,961 for a home with four to six feet of flooding), Houston’s analysis also considered factors such as the building’s size and the lot’s surface permeability.

The conclusion: Harvey inflicted $16 billion of residential damage on the city, much more an $3.1 billion that would meet HUD’s criteria for unmet need.

Besides allowing the city to argue for more funds, the study will also influence where those funds are allocated.

McCasland said neighborhoods such as Braeburn, East Houston, Golfcrest, Greater Fifth Ward, Greenspoint, Gulfton, Hunterwood, Inwood, Lawndale, Midwest, Northshire and Northside would be a focus for the incoming housing recovery funds.

The data may even inform future decisions such as which parts of Houston are safe to build on and what construction precautions should be taken.

“There are places in Houston we shouldn’t be building slab-on-grade — we should be building pier-on-beam,” McCasland said. “This is the good data that we need for data-driven policy.”

If Congress agrees to the additional appropriations, Houston’s methodology may influence how other cities calculate unmet need following a disaster.

“Houston is not unique in these challenges,” McCasland said.