My World's on Fire

By Colleen Hagerty

Where do we GLO from here


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My World's on Fire
Where do we GLO from here
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #86 • View online
Thanks for reading My World’s on Fire, a weekly newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. If you found this dispatch interesting, subscribe here for disaster deep-dives, Q&As, and context in your inbox every Thursday evening.

As I mentioned last week, April marks two years since I started this newsletter (shout out to members for keeping it coming). A special anniversary edition is in the works, but I first wanted to continue revisiting some of the voices you’ve heard from over the past year. 
About a month ago, West Street Recovery, a group I’ve featured twice in this newsletter, popped up in the news. I’ll get to the reason why in a bit, but first, a quick refresher: West Street is a Houston-based “horizontally organized grassroots non-profit organization” with a focus on community involvement and empowerment. That includes sponsoring and working closely with the Northeast Action Collective (NAC), a resident-led group organizing around flooding issues in northeast Houston. This area was hit hard by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, and recovery has been an ongoing challenge as many locals continue to deal with flooding and drainage issues.
“We are resilient people. We keep trying to bounce back, but we never fully recover from the last disaster that we have,” the NAC’s Doris Brown, a longtime resident of the area, told me by phone in March. 
Part of the challenge, she said, is the lack of government funding provided to the area, which she described as historically disadvantaged and disenfranchised with “antiquated” drainage infrastructure. 
She offered up one readily-available example: in 2019, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) allocated more than $4 billion in Community Development Block Grant Mitigation funds to the state of Texas to be distributed by the Texas General Land Office (GLO). The purpose was to provide disaster-impacted areas with money for mitigation projects.
So far, the office has handed out about $2 billion of those funds – but, despite the well-documented issues Houston faced during Harvey, the city received none of those dollars. Neither did Harris County, another badly-impacted area with a large population of Black and Hispanic residents. 
Brown and Ben Hirsch, a co-founder of West Street Recovery, told me the funding announcement was met with protests from advocates and residents alike. Then, last summer, the NAC partnered with non-profit Texas Housers to file a formal complaint with HUD about the GLO’s method of distributing that funding, claiming it was discriminatory. 
Which brings us back to the present – in the beginning of March, HUD announced the results of an eight-month-plus long investigation into that complaint. In a 13-page letter, Christina Lewis, a regional director for HUD, laid out evidence that the GLO “discriminated on the basis of race and national origin,” violating the state’s obligation to distribute federal funding in an equitable way. 
“GLO utilized two scoring criteria that substantially and predictably disadvantaged minority residents, with particularly disparate outcomes for Black residents,” the letter reads, laying out how the GLO criteria excluded areas HUD had designated as “most impacted and distressed.”
“So, in other words,” Brown said in a video statement responding to the letter, “HUD found the GLO guilty of discrimination against Black and Brown communities.”
A number of local outlets have written up helpful summaries of the HUD investigation. It’s worth noting, as this Texas Tribune article does, that this is all happening in the midst of a heated election cycle and that, according to ABC 13, GLO and Houston have a history of clashing over disaster funds.
The GLO has disputed these findings, saying HUD is “politicizing mitigation to the detriment of more than 8 million Texans” and that the office is “considering all options, including legal action against HUD” to resume distributing funding on their terms.
Hirsch believes that what happens next falls largely on the Biden administration’s shoulders. West Street Recovery, the NAC, and Texas Housers started a #FundFloodJustice campaign on social media last week to encourage HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge to halt GLO’s ability to distribute funding in the interim.
A post from West Street Recovery's #FundFloodJustice campaign
A post from West Street Recovery's #FundFloodJustice campaign
“Historically, HUD is not a very strong enforcer on these topics, and we hope that Secretary Fudge will act differently,” Hirsch said. “But there’s a lot of institutional momentum against meddling in state business, and that would be the conservative description of what what HUD is being asked to do.”
Still, Brown called it a “historic moment,” one she feels has helped inject energy back into a fight her community has been waging for years. 
“It was nice for the little people – us that have been historically disadvantaged and just thought of as expandable – it was a win for us,” she said.  “We finally had the nerve to speak up about it.”
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