In the year since a series of severe storms devastated Central Oklahoma, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has awarded nearly 146-million-dollars to the city of Moore and the state to help with recovery. But so far, only a fraction of that has been spent. As part of our series with Oklahoma Watch tracking the federal funding, Kate Carlton Greer reports that spending the money has turned out to be more difficult than expected.
Before we get started, here’s a quick primer on how the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, distributes aid. The money comes in the form of Community Development Block Grants, which the federal government uses to fund affordable housing, revitalize struggling neighborhoods, and – in this case – pay for disaster-stricken communities to get back on their feet.
Vaughn Clark at the Oklahoma Department of Commerce says working within the program’s confines can be complicated.
“There are a lot of federal rules,” Clark says. “It's not like Red Cross or it's not like a Department of Human Services program that can come out and make an immediate impact. This is money that's for usually public infrastructure-type projects.”
Given federal requirements, it’s not always easy money to spend, says Jared Jakubowski, who works as a grants coordinator for the city of Moore.
“It's a challenge,” Jakubowski says, “and in the regulations, 50% of the money has to be spent in what HUD classifies as a low-mod area, and we have one block group in the tornado area that meets that qualification.”
Jakubowski is referring to neighborhoods with primarily low and moderate income households, defined by HUD as less than 32-thousand dollars a year for a family of 4 in the Oklahoma City area. Problem is, tornadoes don’t just hit those areas, and there are plenty of wealthier folks who also need help following a severe storm.
It will take some creative juggling of aid money for Jakubowski to meet the 50% requirement. That’s part of the reason that months after it received its funding, Moore still hasn’t been able to break ground on a single project.
“Planning for almost half a city in disaster area is a huge task, and, we are slowly getting there,” Jakubowski says.
Another reason much of the funding has yet to be spent is because grantees are required to turn to FEMA and other sources first.
Donna Wickes worked in HUD’s Oklahoma City Office last year. She says the delays in Moore and at the state level aren’t really delays at all.
“When you look at our money, our money is the gap at the back end,” Wickes says. “Our money cannot go in immediately at the front end because it's based on unmet need. After other money is spent to provide that initial upfront, we are the long-term recovery.”
Wickes insists that Moore and the state are on track, running their programs in a timely manner.
Even so, the process seems slow to Vaughn Clark at the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, which has so far distributed just half of the first batch of funding it’s received. Clark knows it could be a long road ahead, and he’d like to pick up the pace. The second allocation allows them to fund projects in areas impacted by disasters dating back to 2011, qualifying 57 of the state's 77 counties.
“We have to do quite a bit in a little bit of time,” Clark says. “I think it's going to be somewhat of a surprise to the people that can go back to 2011, 2012 and find out that there may be some assistance available to them, so I think it's going to take them some time to come and talk with us and find out are these types of projects that are needed out in their area eligible to be funded.”
He says there are a lot of puzzle pieces to fit together relatively quickly. And if all the aid isn’t spent over the next five years, HUD’s disaster funding will expire.