More than five years after unprecedented flooding damaged their homes, some Columbia residents are still waiting on public funds that were set aside to help them repair or rebuild.
After the October 2015 flood, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the City of Columbia more than $26 million for various recovery efforts, including more than $13.5 million targeted at low-income homeowners whose properties were damaged, according to a recent progress report on the grant.
From April 2017 to October 2018, 454 Columbia homeowners applied for help through the Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Relief, or CDBG-DR, program, according to Gloria Saeed, director of Columbia’s Community Development Department.
Since then, 49 applicants have had their projects completed and 207 applications have been discarded for various reasons such as failing to meet the income requirements, failing to provide the necessary documentation and selling their property. The city did not provide a breakdown of how many applicants were discarded for each reason.
The remaining 198 are stuck in limbo, still waiting to hear whether they have been approved.
The city has until December 2022 to spend more than $7.8 million allocated to help homeowners in need.
City officials say they are on track to meet the deadline. Earlier this year, the city took steps to increase the program’s efficiency, including bringing on a new contractor to help administer the funds.
But for some, those assurances are too late.
Elnora Jones spent the last three years of her life waiting to move back home. In 2015, the octogenarian was forced to abandon the house where she had spent the bulk of her life after it sustained severe water damage from the flood.
Jones’ daughter, Deborah Coleman, helped her mother apply for the disaster relief funding in 2017. But almost a year later, Jones died before receiving an answer.
Now Coleman is unsure if the application is still being considered because it was submitted in her mother’s name.
“That house has been sealed up for years,” she said. “I don’t want to be stuck with a house that’s falling apart but I can’t fix it on my own.”
The city, citing privacy concerns, declined to discuss individual cases.
Other applicants, like 93-year-old Robert Hipps, have had no choice but to remain in their flood-damaged homes and endure substandard living conditions.
The house — which is in a low-lying area and had previous foundation issues — suffered some water damage prior to the flood.
But since 2015, the problems have gotten exponentially worse with each rainfall, according to Hipps’ son Robert. The backyard is completely waterlogged. There’s mold growing in various nooks and crannies where rain has seeped in. The floorboards have become sloped and uneven.
“We can’t even walk in certain parts of the house because we’re afraid we might fall through,” Kerwin Hipps said.
When he helped his father apply for the program back in 2017, Hipps said, he was hopeful. But after spending years waiting to find out if and when repairs might be made, his faith has begun to waver.
“They always promise they’re going to do this or that but nothing ever gets fixed,” he said. “Something has to change. We are tired of living like this.”
The most recent correspondence his family received was in February, when Columbia’s Community Development Department sent a letter to all remaining applicants informing them that a new program management company called ICF had been brought on.
Initially, the city had contracted with a company called Landmark Consulting to administer both the CDBG-DR funds as well as a separate grant from the Federal Emergency Management Association that paid for major infrastructure projects. City Manager Teresa Wilson said she decided in September 2020 to search for an additional program management company that could take over for Landmark in administering CDBG-DR.
“Landmark took the program as far as they could take it,” she said. “We are at a different phase of the program now that requires a different skill set and focus on construction management and rehabilitation. I remain committed to the citizens of Columbia to provide them the expertise they need in this phase of the program.”
Landmark continues to administer the FEMA grant. A spokesperson from Landmark declined to comment and deferred to the city.
Wilson said she understood residents’ frustrations with the pace of the program but noted that the city had to be “extraordinarily careful” in order to comply with the rules put in place by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Columbia is not the only place that has faced challenges in getting this funding out.
A report last month from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that as of April 2021, Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands had spent only 5 percent of the more than $31 billion available to respond to various 2017 hurricanes.
The report said issues in how the CDBG-DR program is structured on the federal level have created “a time-consuming process” that is vulnerable to fraud risks.
Deborah Watts, who applied for the program in 2017, said she understands Columbia officials’ desire to be thorough, but their lack of urgency is “hurting the people they’re supposed to be helping.”
Watts lives in Greenview, a neighborhood in Northeast Columbia with a large population of Black senior citizens whose homes have been passed down through generations.
The State interviewed five Greenview residents — including Watts and Hipps — who all say they applied for CDBG-DR funding but don’t know if they’ve been approved.
Watts said she and other residents love their neighborhood, and that they would like to see the city invest more time and resources into making improvements.
“People here can’t afford to just move out or bring things up to standard on their own. But if everyone here got that money, it would really mean a lot for this place.”