CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Agencies handling West Virginia’s long-term flood recovery have been trying to figure out how much housing need still remains.
There are some indications that federal long-term disaster funds could be reallocated if the housing need isn’t as great as originally believed.
Almost two years out from the devastating 2016 flood, long-term recovery has moved to the spotlight because of growing complaints about the pace of applying millions of available federal dollars.
Gov. Jim Justice has set an 11:30 a.m. Monday press conference at the Capitol to discuss the RISE West Virginia program for long-term flood relief.
An action plan for long-term recovery from the 2016 floods estimated that housing repairs and replacement could exceed $300 million.
The action plan also estimated about 1,000 housing units for the most vulnerable residents still represent an unmet need.
“West Virginia understands that the solution for these families is to create a housing repair program to rapidly repair the housing stock and get residents back into their homes,” the action plan stated.
The RISE West Virginia program, using federal Community Development Block Grants for disaster relief, was to be the main institution pushing for long-term housing.
The state planned to use 77 percent of its original $104 million award from U.S. Housing and Urban Development to put toward housing needs.
But it’s taken longer than many had thought to get that money flowing.
Of the full $149,875,000 West Virginia has available, the state still has $148,736,333 left on hand.
Many of the housing needs have already been met by charitable and faith-based organizations. Over the past week, several have described going ahead with direct help with housing because there was such a lag with applying the federal grant money.
“We were able to do a lot more than what they expected us to be able to do in the beginning, which now makes the housing need a lot less,” said Jenny Gannaway, executive director of West Virginia Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster.
Still, Gannaway said Sunday afternoon a $16 million housing need remains.
“A lot of what’s left is major,” she said.
The debate over West Virginia’s true remaining housing need has spanned months.
Representatives from HUD, FEMA and the Justice administration gathered on Nov. 7, 2017, for a meeting of the minds, according to a Federal Emergency Management Agency newsletter, Forward Recovery.
“Due to the complexity of the situation, the meeting was convened to ensure that there was a holistic strategy for the use of these funds,” FEMA Region III officials wrote in the newsletter.
Participants raised concerns that the federal agencies had allocated more money toward housing recovery than was really needed.
The disaster marked the first time that West Virginia received a Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grant –Disaster Recovery allocation. And it was the largest amount of FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program funds ever received by the state.
There was already discussion at the November meeting of reallocating some of the money, possibly toward infrastructure needs.
“With the influx of disaster recovery funds, recovery programs have the potential to duplicate efforts and even inhibit the recovery process,” FEMA wrote in its newsletter.
“Participants raised concerns that CDBG-DR and HMGP were allocating more funding toward housing recovery beyond what is needed. Participants also discussed other significant unmet needs in addition to housing.
As a result, the state Dept. of Homeland Security and Emergency Management decided to re-prioritize grant applications with a focus on infrastructure, FEMA wrote.
“Also, the state Department of Commerce agreed to work with HUD to determine the steps and requirements to ultimately reallocate housing funds once the unmet needs have been fully met.”
West Virginia MetroNews sent a series of questions on Friday to the state Department of Commerce, asking about the possibility that funds could be shifted.
Questions included: Where does this matter stand? Is there an adjustment happening about how much housing needs West Virginia has? Is there a possibility or reallocating housing funds? What would that process be like? Has it begun?
Commerce provided no response by Sunday afternoon. The Governor’s Office communications department, which was also looped in for the questions, also did not respond.
Emails obtained through a Freedom of Information request show some internal debate about West Virginia’s housing need.
The emails from this past March 9 were among a group that included Mary Ann Tierney of FEMA Region III, Jimmy Gianato of West Virginia Homeland Security, Gen. James Hoyer of the West Virginia National Guard and Brian Abraham, general counsel for the Justice administration.
Tierney alluded to a meeting that included representatives of both FEMA and Housing and Urban Development.
“At the meeting we discussed the current status of the Action Plan and perceived disconnects between agencies on the housing requirement,” Tierney wrote in a group email.
“As you know, the WV Department of Commerce has provided data to support a substantial housing requirement while your offices believe the housing requirement is much less than described.”
Tierney wrote that Commerce had more than 2,000 applications for the RISE program and had identified 692 that were conditionally eligible. Tierney made reference to Gannaway, saying she still considered the housing need to be substantial.
Tierney warned that Housing and Urban Development would need clear data to substantiate a change to the umet housing need described in the action plan.
She said that conversations had begun already about how to change the action plan.
“If there will be a shift from housing to economic revitalization/infrastructure then the amendment will have to address what, if any housing need will still exist and how that need will be addressed,” Tierney wrote.