Aid won't be used to repair houses

The state decides federal funds should strengthen undamaged homes instead.

Published January 26, 2007

Although thousands of hurricane-ravaged Florida homes still need roofs, a $100-million federal grant that could have helped repair them will mostly support a state effort to prepare undamaged houses for future storms.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gave the money to the state as part of a federal aid package for communities hit hard by 2005 hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma. But the state pushed for the money to bolster its My Safe Florida Home program, which aims to strengthen homes against the threat of hurricanes.

The decision by former Gov. Jeb Bush's administration in the waning months of his term frustrated and angered some South Florida officials. They say it has hamstrung efforts to bring relief to low-income residents whose homes remain in disrepair.

Rick Stauts, assistant city manager for Homestead, said his city has at least 100 homes that each need more than $20,000 worth of repairs.

"We all need hurricane relief," Stauts said. "A large number of folks are not going to get any relief out of this."

The state submitted its plan to Washington last month, days after a conference call it held in lieu of a public hearing on how best to spend the money.

In that call, local officials gave the state an earful, saying they could not understand the logic of putting money to help home-owners who may or may not eventually need it, given that so many poor people are still living without permanent roofs two years after hurricanes wrecked their homes.

Others questioned why the state would act without giving local governments a meaningful opportunity to help decide how the money would be spent.

"To hear that only now after the rule is written that we're having a chance to weigh in, that's a little frustrating," Dan Wall of the Miami-Dade County Office of Strategic Management, said during the Dec. 15 conference call.

The local officials say they were convinced going into the discussion that it didn't matter what they said.

"You got a feeling that a decision was made," said Florida City Mayor Otis Wallace. "This one looked like a fait accompli."

Janice Browning, a division director at the state Department of Community Affairs, which oversees the HUD money, said the state's plan does not preclude local governments from asking for assistance other than strengthening homes against hurricanes.

"If they need a repair that goes along with this as a state, we want to see that happen," Browning said. "But I'm not going to disagree. The emphasis certainly is on hardening and mitigation."

No local discretion

The $100-million was the second HUD grant for the 2005 storms that Florida received. The first was for $82-million.

After HUD announced that more money was available, the state requested data from local governments about their needs.

Miami-Dade County alone responded with $68-million worth of residential and commercial problems. About $30-million was needed to replace the roofs of low-income homeowners; $2.7-million to provide back-up generators for elderly public housing developments.

Local officials said they wanted the kind of discretion they had with the first HUD grant. It allowed local governments to repair individual homes or to take such mitigation steps as installing a stormwater drainage system in Florida City, which flooded during the 2005 hurricane season.

"Most everyone in local government was in agreement that the state should go through the same process or a similar process as they did with the $83-million," said Wall, the Miami-Dade strategic management official.

But with growing anxiety over the state's insurance crisis, Bush and the Legislature made fortifying homes the centerpiece in efforts to lower homeowner insurance rates.

The hope is stronger homes will mean fewer losses to storms. Insurance companies wouldn't have as many claims to pay, which should bring lower premiums. The state called the program My Safe Florida Home.

Last spring, lawmakers approved $250-million in state money to support the program.

The Bush administration decided to press for the new round of HUD funding to add to the pot - a decision that Gov. Charlie Crist could change with an amended proposal to HUD.

Jennings makes case

With prior HUD money, the state Department of Community Affairs handled such grants with input from local governments.

But with the $100-million, the Bush administration became directly involved. Former Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings visited HUD offices late last summer to make the case to have the money go to mitigation, said HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan.

Among others on the trip was Leslie Chapman-Henderson, the president of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes or FLASH, Browning said.

FLASH, a nonprofit organization based in Tallahassee, has been one of the leading advocates of mitigation for the last eight years and received a $3- million no-bid contract to help run the pilot phase of My Safe Florida Home.

FLASH also would become part of the decisionmaking process that led the Bush administration to use the $100-million grant for mitigation rather than give local governments the kind of discretion to which they have become accustomed.

In a statement, Chapman-Henderson said she attended the meeting with HUD in Washington as an expert, along with officials from the Office of Insurance Regulation and the Florida Housing Finance Corp., a quasi-governmental agency that helps low-income Floridians.

Last October, Bush announced that he intended to add the $100-million to the effort to fortify homes.

The plan for the $100-million was written into legislation drafted by an Insurance Reform Committee, which was chaired by Jennings and on which Chapman-Henderson sat, in preparation for the special legislative session on insurance that would take place this month.

Comment time limited

The state put out a "tentative timeline" that noted the public comment period on use of the $100-million would open Dec. 6; a public hearing would take place as a two-hour conference call Dec. 15; the public comment period would end Dec. 22, the date the state's plan would be submitted to HUD.

Local officials said they thought the comment period was more a formality then a sincere effort to development a plan that served the public's interest. They let the state have it during the conference call.

The call's moderator was Esrone McDaniels, director of the community development block grant money for the Department of Community Affairs. He informed callers what the state planned:

"The state of Florida in concert with the Department of Financial Services and the governor's office, we brainstormed how best we could use the $100- million that we are receiving from HUD.

"What we were able to come up with, in order to assist with the insurance crisis, is to direct dollar or funnel dollars toward hardening and mitigating homes against potential disasters in the future. This is a way to bring down insurance costs in our state as well as prepare low-income residents toward hedging against the devastating impact of future hurricanes."

McDaniels' comments drew immediate fire:

"Did you consult with local government when you were making the decision about how this money was going to be utilized in terms of their particular needs?" asked Lisa Blair, a consultant representing several counties.

McDaniels: "What we have done, there were various other organizations, you know, Volunteer Florida and some other relevant organizations that did have some contact ..."

"Who were the relevant organizations?" a caller asked.

"Well, we had the Department of Financial Services; we had Volunteer Florida; we had FLASH; the Florida Housing Finance Corp.," McDaniels responded.

"You didn't talk with local governments about what their needs might be in terms of how this money might best be utilized in their particular community?" the caller asked.

"Well, this is the first public comment period as it relates to the proposed disaster plan," McDaniels said.

McDaniels tried to assure the callers that their comments would be taken into consideration.

They weren't buying it.

Said John O'Brien of Monroe County: "My difficulty with this is once the plan is submitted to HUD and approved, it cannot be changed."

McDaniels: "It can be amended. Yes it can. It can be changed. It can be amended. But before we ..."

"Why don't we amend it before we send it in?" O'Brien asked.

Moments later a fire alarm went off at the Department of Community Affairs office, putting the hearing on hold. But the local officials who called in from across the state continued their discussion.

No one gave their names at that point as the comments became a free-for-all.

"I think we've got to say our peace and I think we have to say so it's so overwhelmingly clear, and that the record clearly indicates that this doesn't work for our communities," one caller said. "... This has nothing to do with helping people. This has to do with addressing an insurance crisis."

Another caller: "Well, they're wanting to make My Safe Florida housing work and ... I've heard they've not done one house yet."

"You mean the whole program?" a woman said. "The My Safe Florida program, not one house has been done yet?

"I don't think so," another woman said. "Not one house."

"Not one."

"Not one."

"In the entire state of Florida."

"Not even a demo?"

After about 10 minutes, McDaniels returned from what he said turned out to have been a fire drill. Again he tried to assure the locals that they were not being cut out of the process.

"I understand that there are some frustrations. And I want to reiterate that there are some comments. So we want to hear from you as to what your proposed ideas are."

The state had said it planned to take comments for a week after the phone call.

Instead, four days later, the state sent the final report to HUD with no substantial change.

Ivan Penn covers consumer affairs issues and can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2332.

Fast Facts:


Getting your home inspected

To qualify for the My Safe Florida Home program, your house must be a single-family, site-built dwelling and have a current homestead exemption with an insured value of less than $500,000.

So far about 14,000 homeowners have had home inspections. The Department of Financial Services is issuing reports about those homeowners' inspections and on its Web site has listed contractors approved to perform repairs.

For more information or to apply for the program, go to mysafefloridahome.com or call 1-800-342-2762.