About 16 months after Hurricane Harvey slammed South Texas, the storm and the havoc it wreaked across the region are still at the forefront of many state lawmakers’ minds.
The hurricane pummeled the Texas Gulf Coast on Aug. 25, 2017, less than two weeks after state lawmakers wrapped up a monthlong special session after 2017’s regular legislative session. At the time, some elected leaders called for the Texas Legislature, which meets every two years, to again convene a special session. But Texas. Gov. Greg Abbott said it wasn’t necessary, saying that the state had enough resources to address the disaster before the legislature met again in January 2019, the Texas Tribune reported.
Since then, recovery in many communities, particularly rural ones, has been erratic – and excruciatingly slow for some families without the finances needed to rebuild. When Hurricane Harvey caused an estimated $125 billion in damage across the state, it exacerbated a shortage of affordable housing already existing within communities, including Victoria.
Now, the time has come for lawmakers to grapple with the aftermath. During this session, which starts Tuesday, improving housing conditions for families and piecing together lives that Harvey ripped apart are top priorities for some lawmakers. Legislators have until early March 8 to file bills, but these are some issues that advocates expect will arise this session:
Tapping the savings account
After Hurricane Harvey, the question remains whether Texas will tap into its savings account – known as the Rainy Day Fund – to help communities recover. The Texas Tribune recently reported that the fund, officially called the Economic Stabilization Fund, grew to a record high of $12.5 billion.
Both of the Crossroads’ elected representatives, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst and Rep. Geanie Morrison, told the Victoria Advocate they want to dip into the fund to help communities rebuild. Even with grant money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help pay for damages, many local governments still don’t have the funds to recover.
That’s because when FEMA awards grants to Texas communities, it generally covers 90 percent of project costs and requires local governments to chip in the remaining 10 percent. For small towns like Bayside, Austwell and even Refugio County, coming up with 10 percent of projects that can costs hundreds of thousands of dollars – or upward of $1 million – is impossible.
“I’ve said very publicly that I’m going to vote to take money out of (the Rainy Day Fund),” said Kolkhorst. “I’ve been leading the charge in the Senate on this particular issue. I think it’s very important that we continue to recover from Hurricane Harvey.”
Rebuild Texas recommendations
In Harvey’s aftermath, the governor created a special group called the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas, headed by Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp. That commission put together a report with dozens of recommendations, aimed at ensuring Texans and their governments are able to rebuild after Hurricane Harvey – and other disasters that may strike in the future.
The recommendations seek to improve how Texas prepares and responds before, during and after disasters. The recommendations include boosting funding for radio systems; improving contracts for debris removal; setting up response teams to guide local officials; and establishing a new group, called the Institute for a Disaster-Resilient Texas, within Texas A&M University.
“I’ve been working very closely with the Rebuild Texas commission and Commissioner Sharp,” said Kolkhorst. “We have been working with his team, and he and I have been looking at different statutory changes that need to be made.”
Disclosing flood risks
Right now, there’s no law that requires landlords to tell tenants that the property they’re living in is located in a flood plain – or prone to flooding. But housing advocates are hoping to change that. Nate Walker, a lobbyist for the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, said a Houston lawmaker has agreed to sponsor a bill that would require landlords to tell prospective tenants that units are prone to flooding.
“(After Harvey), a lot of people that were displaced were renters,” said Walker. “There were a lot of apartments completely underwater, and a lot of folks had no idea what they were getting into when they signed their lease.”
Limiting late fees
When tenants are late paying rent, landlords are allowed to charge late fees. But right now, there’s little consistency in how much and when those penalties are applied.
“Landlords have been getting a lot of legal heat about whether the late fees that they charge to their tenants are excessive,” explained Walker.
Last session, lawmakers explored setting a cap for late fees, but some advocates warned that the cap was too high and would create the opposite effect, hurting tenants by encouraging landlords to charge the maximum amount. This year, Walker and his organization are working to push a bill that would instead make it so any late fees would be applied to a tenant’s rent. That way, landlords can’t continue charging additional fees on unpaid balances.
In Texas, most court records, including eviction records, are considered public. That means once a landlord tries to evict a tenant, there’s a permanent black mark on his or her court record that any future landlord can view.
But some housing advocates argue that can disproportionately hurt tenants who don’t have the resources to fight for their rights in the justice system. And once tenants have those marks on their records, some landlords blacklist them from properties.
Right now, there’s no way for Texas tenants to expunge their eviction records, according to the Texas Tenants’ Union. But a bill filed this session would change that.