Affordable housing post-Harvey: A Q&A with Houston Housing Authority CEO Tory Gunsolley

by Rincey Abraham

Although affordable housing has been a growing concern in Houston over the past year, Hurricane Harvey further exacerbated the problem. Forest Green Townhomes in northeast Houston experienced severe flooding, impacting 84 families. In order to help those families, the Houston Housing Authority (HHA) worked with the Oklahoma City Housing Authority to cover all the families at Forest Green that experienced flood damage to their homes.

Tory Gunsolley, the president and CEO of HHA, recently talked about shifting from emergency response to recovery and the recent partnership with the Oklahoma City Housing Authority.

 

Q: What has HHA been focused on for the past few months?

Initially, we focused on emergency response and emergency issues following Hurricane Harvey, and now we have slowly shifted to recovery and the in-between phases and mitigations. Early on during the flood, it was helping to coordinate shelter and high-water rescues and food and water and emergency cooling center and things like that. We have now pivoted to short-term housing for people who need it and focusing on long-term housing and repair work.

 

Q: What impact did Harvey had on your federal housing units?

We have 951 units that were damaged during the storm in the portfolio we own. In the voucher program, we’ve had more than 400 families that needed to be relocated due to flooding.

 

Q: Earlier this year, you had to stop issuing Housing Choice Vouchers (HCV). What is the program, and what has been done since that announcement?

The HCV program is a classic public/private partnership where we are providing the subsidy for a family to be able to stay in market rate housing. What happened is we didn’t have enough money to continue to operate the program due to HUD’s requirements to receive shortfall funding. That required us to take steps to lower the cost of the program. We’ve done that and HUD has provided shortfall funding to us, which should help stabilize the funding situation.

A part of the challenge going forward is going to be what the new level of funding is from Congress. The shortfall is filled with some estimate of normalized funding, but some of the numbers they are talking about in Washington, D.C., right now would be less than what we would hope for and would continue the impact of the shortfall. So we haven’t been able to issue new vouchers. We’ve had a number of other cost-saving measures in place, and they will stay in place until the program has adequate funding. We were hoping that would be during the January with the new funding cycle, but now that we are unsure of what Congress is going to pass in terms of a budget, January might be optimistic.

 

Q:  Can you talk about the partnership between the HHA and Oklahoma City Housing Authority?

We had a situation where 84 public housing units at the Forest Green Townhomes had flooded, and we needed to relocate those people. Because we were in shortfall, we couldn’t issue any vouchers. So I reached out to housing authorities across the country and explained our need. We had a number of agencies contact us, but Oklahoma City had enough to take care of the entire development. It’s a neat way for them to help us during our time of need, and hopefully we can help them on their utilization numbers. The partnership is working out very well.

We would love to issue our own vouchers or have a disaster voucher program like during Katrina. But since those options weren’t available to us, we had to be creative and think of another way to get it done.

 

Q: Are there any steps that can be taken by local citizens to help in Houston?  

There are several things that we can advocate for. First is that there would be a disaster voucher program created. This is a program that worked well after Katrina, and it essentially uses housing authorities across the region to help the thousands of low-income households impacted by the storm. But it requires FEMA to authorize HUD to roll this program out. So people can advocate that we use this program that has been done successfully before.

Secondly, people should be vocal that the recovery needs to be fair and equitable to everyone. We need to speak up for those voices that aren’t often heard in Washington. There are a lot of people concerned that the recovery after Harvey will get lost in all of the other disasters that have happened.

 

Q: There are many low-income households that still aren’t receiving assistance due to a lack of funds in this area. What recommendation would you give to people who are in need of help?

This is the sad reality: The safety net of public housing and affordable housing is full. It was full before Harvey and now that folks need it even more, it doesn’t have capacity to add people to it. So the advice is to make sure you are registered with FEMA and working the FEMA process. And be willing to be a strong advocate for yourself in getting that assistance.

 

 

 

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