HOUSTON (Nexstar) — A months-long federal investigation into how the state allocated Hurricane Harvey federal relief found a Texas agency discriminated against communities of color when it denied aid to Houston and Harris County.
A Friday report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found the Texas General Land Office “substantially and predictably disadvantaged minority residents” after initially granting zero dollars to Houston and Harris County. The GLO, headed by Land Commissioner George P. Bush, is the Texas agency responsible for distributing the roughly $2 million federal dollars the state was given to help build infrastructure for future flooding.
Last year, local city and county leaders condemned the land office’s decision, as Houston and surrounding areas were hit hardest by Hurricane Harvey.
Doris Brown was one of the millions of Texans devastated by the hurricane and frustrated by the aftermath; so much so she founded a grassroots group of neighbors whose sole mission was to advocate for investments in drainage and flood mitigation to help for future storms.
Her group, the Northeast Action Collective, joined nonprofit Texas Housers in filing a complaint with HUD about how the land office was distributing the funds for prevention and disaster mitigation, accusing the office of depriving funding to communities of need in historically Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.
“We have flooded, our communities have flooded, and we still are at risk,” Brown said in a video statement. “No one seems to address this, and this has become a growing concern in the Black and brown communities. We found out that we do not recover at the same rate as other communities.”
After an eight-month investigation, HUD ultimately agreed with the groups’ complaint, finding GLO violated the Civil Rights Act and federal housing laws.
In HUD’s letter, first reported by The Houston Chronicle, federal officials said the way GLO selected which localities to award funds to “discriminated on the basis of race and national origin” with “particularly disparate outcomes for Black residents.”
In 2018, Congress gave Texas more than $4 billion for recovery efforts after Hurricane Harvey. However, at least half of it has yet to be distributed. In 2021, Bush’s office announced it would begin distributing the initial round of funding. With a limited number of funds to hash out, his office required localities to submit project proposals. To help decide who qualified, those projects were then given scores based on numerous criteria, but Harris County and Houston’s proposals did not score high enough to qualify.
In a statement, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner applauded HUD’s findings, calling on the land office to create a new method for determining which localties can receive relief dollars.
“HUD is saying you cannot take the money we are sending to Texas because of Hurricane Harvey and then direct most of those proceeds out of Houston and Harris County, which experienced 50% of the damage,” Turner said. “That doesn’t make sense, because it goes against the intent, and it benefits other communities that are not nearly as prone to flood as Houston, Harris County.”
David Wheaton, advocacy director for Texas Housers, called HUD’s findings a “historic victory” for communities of color throughout Houston and the Gulf Coast area.
“This is all mitigation money. So this is to help these communities not go through the same thing they went through with Harvey,” he said. “We’re hoping that we can come to a resolution that could cure the discrimination that has happened.”
He said it’s necessary these communities get the relief to help build preventive infrastructure.
“Some of the Black and brown communities in Houston have been historically divested from when it comes to stormwater infrastructure, when it comes to drainage issues,” Wheaton said. “So they get hit some of the hardest when it comes to hurricanes and heavy, heavy storms. But it costs more to fix those problems, because they’ve been divested from for so long.”
GLO spokesperson Brittany Eck doubled down on their methods of distributing funds, accusing HUD of “politicizing mitigation” in a statement over email.
“The GLO administered its program in accordance with HUD guidance and the HUD-approved action plan,” she said. “The GLO is considering all options, including legal action against HUD, to release this iron-fisted grip on mitigation funding and restore the pipeline of funds to communities.”
HUD’s report said if the land office does not voluntarily resolve the issue with a timeline for doing so, the department may refer the matter to the U.S. Justice Department.
Brown said she is hopeful HUD’s findings will lead to real change in communities like hers.
“We can get this discrimination put behind us. We can get our neighborhood infrastructure abated so that we will not have to flood. We are tired of flooding,” she said.