Thursday, April 19, 2012

Remembering the Houston PHA's Katrina heroism

 [CORRECTION: A previous version of this item talked about a HUD investigation of corruption allegations against a housing authority. That investigation involves the Harris County Housing Authority and not the Houston Housing Authority. I apologize for the mistake.]

The Houston Housing Authority was one of the few big institutions to get it right, right off the bat, after Hurricane Katrina. The whole city of Houston went to work helping out. Usefully, not just with talk. Not worried about getting paid first, like everyone else seemed to be at the time. There's a research archive at the University of Texas about that amazingly heroic whole-city effort. The finding aid there puts it well: "It was in the actions of Houston and Houstonians that the nation found a significant measure of redemption...." That's for real.

I was blogging at the time for Affordable Housing Finance, which is a business magazine for developers and managers of subsidized housing. I wasn't on the scene or anything, just sitting in an  apartment in California, but was pulled by the mood of emergency into long hours of obsessive specialized Net-surfing: news sites, industry sites, legal aid and organizing sites, the technical inner pages at HUD and other public agencies, a few tips from friendly housing officials. The idea was to find useful technical information about the relief effort that housing managers outside the disaster zone could use to get displaced people indoors. As we all know now, there wasn't enough.

To put in perspective how great the Houston response was, remember that the federal agencies were very nearly nowhere outside of their stupid no-bid contracts, whose main purpose was to build and populate refugee camps. Those famous FEMA trailers.

One bit of particularly offensive bureaucratic apathy was the federal instruction that housing managers who had available subsidized units for displaced survivors should register them at a federal emergency response Web site called "SWERN.gov". It became clear after some days that nothing was being done with offers of housing units registered at this site. That is, well-intentioned small-scale property managers who wanted to house desperate people were being invited to drop their useful, heartfelt offerings into an oubliette. This was my main post about it. (It emerged later that the SWERN site was run by military-type logistics people who weren't set up to make use of anything smaller than a warehouse or an airborne division. It's fortunate that several private organizations set up practical listing services for individual offers of housing.)

After a while a sense emerged of where islands of usefulness had appeared amid the local dysfunction and the federal cynicism. A lot of the usefulness was in Houston. Here's one of my items about that, from September 12, 2005, two weeks after the hurricane. It repeated an appeal going out from managers at the Houston Housing Authority for volunteers from other housing agencies to help check in all the displaced people they were housing. Houston's letter added this:
"Our Board has approved our granting preference to voucher and public housing program clients from hurricane impacted areas; we are actively placing clients served by the New Orleans Housing Authority (HANO) and other hurricane-affected housing authorities in our vacant public housing units as well as porting voucher clients in our program. Additionally, the City of Houston is sponsoring a citywide housing voucher system to assist an additional 20,000 non-assisted, displaced households; and the Houston Housing Authority will administer the program."
That meant they were throwing caution to the winds and giving people practical places to live right up front, regardless of cost. And in the same blog item (my words, not Houston's):
"Still no special disaster relief housing vouchers from the federal government as far as we know. FYI, the federal directive that is already allowing housing authorities to place hurricane-displaced tenants at the tops of waiting lists is Housing Notice 2004-22 -- a notice issued previously but invoked automatically by the declaration of the current disaster."
That is, HUD Still Not Doing Squat, Not Really, and Houston Not At All Sure Of Getting Paid Back, and Houston Coming Through Anyway.

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