Harris County Commissioners advance plan to use $1.15B in block grant funding for buyouts, other programs by Nov. 1

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Harris County Commissioners approved submitting a plan for using $1.15 billion from the first round of Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funding to the Texas General Land Office at its Tuesday morning meeting. The approval is the first step in securing U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grants to fund buyouts of flooded homes in low-income areas, rebuild houses and institute other programs.

Commissioners unanimously approved submitting the plan after hearing comments from several members of the public who talked about the ways Hurricane Harvey have affected low-income neighborhoods in the county.

Daphne Lemelle, community development director for the county’s Community Services Department, said the department has taken comments from 900 people and received 500 surveys for input on the plan since it was posted on the department website two weeks ago.

Now that the plan has been approved by commissioners, it will be submitted to the Texas General Land Office, which will put it out for public review for 14 days. The plan will then go to HUD for final approval, which can take 45 days, Lemelle said.

The goal is for county buyout and rehabilitation programs to be active by Nov. 1 and for buyouts to start by the end of the year, Lemelle said.

The plan includes $211 million to rehabilitate and reconstruct owner-occupied single-family homes damaged by Hurricane Harvey and $200 million for the county’s homeowner buyout and acquisition program, among other allocations.

If implemented, the plan also will allow the county’s Community Services Department to provide qualifying homeowners affected by Hurricane Harvey with up to $180,000 for a home. The full amount is available to residents even if their home is worth less than $30,000 if they financially qualify for the program, she said.

“[HUD is allowing us] to incentivize people who live in flood buyout areas with incentives that will really help them,” Lemelle said.

The average amount of assistance a buyout provides is $160,000, according to the Harris County Flood Control District, she said.

County residents, including several from the nonprofit Texas Organizing Project, which represents black and Latino communities in several Texas counties, spoke about concern for low-income residents who might take buyouts for their properties.

“I’m concerned for the future of our neighborhoods and the families that lost all their worldly goods except for the roofs over their heads,” said Pastor Lionel Parker.

Another resident, Kevin Mitchell, said he believed the grant money could provide a good opportunity to provide job training for county residents who need it.

“I urge the county to create a workforce development program as quickly as possible … and open career pathways for people who live in these affected areas,” he said.

Lemelle said there is a federal requirement to hire local contractors as part of the grant.

Commissioners also approved the acquisition of 13 tracts for the Cypress Creek Greenway as part of the consent agenda. Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said the acquisitions will all be on the same side of the creek, but the county could receive additional funding to cover acquisitions for both sides of the creek if the Aug. 25 bond referendum for $2.5 billion is approved by voters.

Cagle has said greenway acquisitions help to provide a nonresidential area for floodwaters to go during future flooding events.

Acquisition of the tracts will cost a total of $100,000, but the average value of the pieces is only about $1,000 each, he said, because they were undeveloped or had issues with the titles. The pieces of land will help to create a continuous strip of county-owned land for the greenway, he said.

Cagle said the Community Development Block Grant Program, in addition to helping some homeowners in Precinct 4, will also free up county revenue for middle-cost home buyouts in other areas.

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Vanessa Holt
A resident of the Houston area since 2011, Vanessa began working in community journalism in her home state of New Jersey in 1996. She joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2016 as a reporter for the Spring/Klein edition and became editor of the paper in March 2017.
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