Commentary: 47,000 are still homeless after Harvey. We can fix this

If federal agencies don’t act soon, tens of thousands of Hurricane Harvey survivors will be spending Christmas in hotels and motels.

Children who have already been denied safe places to play for the past four months won’t test out new toys in their driveways. Families won’t be making Christmas cookies in kitchens or eating holiday dinner around a dining table.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

This volatility can be harmful on jobs, mental health and children’s education. We and other advocates are calling on federal officials to implement a transitional program that has proven to be an effective method for housing recovery in the past: the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP).

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The hotel/motel voucher program has kept tens of thousands of families housed since Harvey struck, but plenty of people have been turned away as hotels seek to return to their normal business. The vouchers are also not a guarantee for families. Since they’ve been distributed, they’ve been renewed at least four times. The uncertainty creates a frantic rush every time families are faced with the approaching deadline when the voucher may be taken away.

Last month, around 47,000 survivors of Hurricane Harvey spent Thanksgiving in hotels and motels across Texas. On Nov. 22, the Houston Chronicle reported that in the city, 300,000 housing units were damaged. Not a single person had moved into a trailer or apartment or help with home repairs through interim housing programs run by the state. “More permanent solutions could be years away,” the Chronicle writes.

DHAP shortens the time families are stuck in motels or trailers by providing them with rental subsidies for permanent rental housing, regardless of income level.

Just as Gov. Greg Abbott has been vocal about “inadequate” federal funding to rebuild infrastructure, our state’s leader should call on the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to establish this proven housing assistance that can help survivors get back on their feet and recover quickly.

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DHAP was created in 2007 after the Bush administration recognized that the lack of coordination between FEMA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development left survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita with few options for safe housing. Trailers and motel assistance were not enough to meet that magnitude of need. Two years after the disaster, survivors remained vulnerable and continued to need help securing housing. The housing agency helped FEMA to leverage relationships with local public housing agencies to administer the program. This is exactly the type of federal-local partnership and coordination that Harvey survivors need to recover more quickly.

Between 2007 and 2009 DHAP provided 36,000 families with rental subsidies that declined over time and eventually stopped – but case management that helped focus families’ efforts to secure a decent home provided support during the transition.

A study shows that most post-Katrina participants in DHAP reported that having this basic program helped them achieve some kind of stability after losing so much. Many of the people who used this program were financially vulnerable people who achieved housing stability after a little over a year with some help. The median amount families received was $8,149 between 2007 and 2009. The government’s purchase price for the average FEMA trailer at that time was about $20,000.

Currently, there is no plan to implement the cost-saving and effective program – even after the several disasters that have struck our country – and even after the program has been implemented, studied and honed. Twelve U.S. senators — as well as Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner — have called on FEMA Administrator Brock Long and HUD Secretary Ben Carson to consider implementing DHAP. The wellness, mental health and quick recovery for so many families depend on the cooperation of these two agencies.

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State officials, including Abbott and General Land Office Commissioner George P. Bush, also have a responsibility to express Texas’ needs for recovery. Abbott should push agencies to work together to help families escape from the trauma of disaster and uncertainty and get them into a home. DHAP is a proven and important step in that process.

Espinosa is executive director of FIEL Houston, an immigrants rights group. Muhammad is CEO of ACTION Community Development Corp. Both are members of Houston Rising.

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