Houston

Houston Mayor Whitmire, Texas land commissioner pledge to work together to disperse remaining Hurricane Harvey relief funds

In a congratulatory letter this week to Mayor John Whitmire, Texas Land Commissioner Dawn Buckingham said the city has about $200 million in federal relief funding that has yet to be spent, more than six years after the devastating storm.

Harvey Flooding Northwest Houston
REUTERS/Adrees Latif
Houses are seen submerged in flood waters from Hurricane Harvey in Northwest Houston on Aug. 30, 2017.

After years of squabbling between Houston officials and the Texas General Land Office, the city's new mayor and the state's land commissioner both have expressed a willingness to work with each other. That could spell relief for Houston residents who are still trying to recover from the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Texas Land Commissioner Dawn Buckingham, in a Wednesday letter to Houston Mayor John Whitmire that was publicized by the mayor's office, said that as of Dec. 1 the city had more than $200 million in federal disaster relief funds that had yet to be spent. Buckingham told Whitmire her staff was willing to meet with him and discuss how the money could be allocated, also offering to provide staffing and expertise to help Whitmire's administration navigate the regulations and requirements associated with the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program operated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"I want you to know that my top priority for the citizens of your great city is to make sure the General Land Office (GLO) provides you all the support you need to successfully close out the remaining Hurricane Harvey programs in Houston," Buckingham wrote. "As you know, up until now the GLO has had a strained relationship with Houston."

Whitmire, a Democrat who served in the Texas Legislature from 1972 until he was sworn in as Houston mayor earlier this week, was in the state senate alongside the Republican Buckingham from 2017-23. Whitmire succeeded Sylvester Turner, another Democrat and former state lawmaker whose administration sparred with the GLO and former land commissioner George P. Bush over Harvey relief funds, how quickly they were being dispersed and who was at fault for delays.

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The GLO took over the city's Harvey Homeowner Assistance Program in 2020, at which point only 156 impacted residents had been helped in the aftermath of a storm that brought widespread flooding to the region and caused more than $125 billion in damages. In 2021, Bush initially shut out both Houston and surrounding Harris County from receiving any money from a round of federal relief funding before later agreeing to allocate a total of $750 million.

Whitmire said in a Thursday statement that Houston "will move beyond the historic political fighting with the state during my administration."

"During my time in the Texas Legislature, I built strong relationships with the leadership in Austin, which has already started to benefit the people of Houston," he added. "... I am excited to work with Commissioner Buckingham, and we will create a plan to ensure the $200 million Harvey federal relief fund is distributed as quickly and equitably as possible to those who qualify and need it. We will have an announcement as soon as we work out the details."

In her letter to Whitmire, Buckingham wrote that Houston's housing and community development office has been "plagued with a number of problems from the previous administration," citing limited capacity, staffing shortages and "conflicting priorities." She said the result has been a lack of adequate assistance for Houstonians in need as well as intervention by the state land office.

The GLO has completed nearly 1,400 single-family homes through the Harvey Homeowner Assistance Program since taking it over from the city in 2020, according to Buckingham, who said an additional 739 homes have been approved and are under construction. She also said the office has stepped in to provide federally required tenant assistance to more than 800 renters who were displaced by the buyouts of three apartment complexes in the aftermath of the hurricane.

"There is also approximately $60 million in funding that has not yet been allocated by the city to any (recovery) programs," Buckingham wrote to Whitmire. "This is concerning as the city's contract expires in February 2025. Once again, I will make sure my staff provides you with all the necessary help to ensure this funding gets out to those who need it most."