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Water, water everywhere: the view from Houston 

How Houston plans to handle housing issues for thousands of residents

Hurricane Harvey caused unprecedented damage when it hit Texas Aug. 25 as a Category 4 hurricane and dumped feet of rainwater in some places as it hovered as a tropical storm before re-entering the Gulf and making a second landfall in Louisiana, where it caused more flooding.

  While Texans begin clean-up operations and repairs and wait for floodwaters to recede around swollen waterways, Floridians brace for Hurricane Irma. At press time, Irma was a Category 4 storm packing 150 mph winds and positioned to blow through Florida. Gov. Rick Scott has warned Floridians to heed mandatory evacuation orders issued for the Keys and other parts of south Florida, and tens of thousands of people already have left their homes. Behind Irma is Category 4 Hurricane Jose, which is moving through the Atlantic.

  As we hold our collective breath and pray for our neighbors in Florida, here's the situation in Texas:

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY U.S. COAST GUARD DISTRICT 8 PADET HOUSTON
  • Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard District 8 PADET Houston

When the water got over their knees, everything in the house started floating: books, toys, pots and pans even a deep freezer weighed down with frozen meats. The water came over the living room table, washing away items the family had kept there, and inched up to the pool table, where the family had taken refuge.

  They didn't think the water could get that high, but in the early hours of Aug. 27, Cynthia Jones, her sister-in-law, Vanessa Byrd, and their husbands scrambled through their flooded home to find important papers and their Bibles as they gathered the kids to get out. They knew they wouldn't be able to return to live in their duplex home in the Fifth Ward of Houston.

  "We lost everything," Byrd said. "I had to call my neighbor and ask, 'Can we please come to your house?' She said, 'How are you gonna get here?' So we started wading through the water. Everybody was just crawling out of their houses."

  The Byrd and Jones families and their neighbors are among tens of thousands of people in Houston and Harris County who will seek a temporary housing voucher once FEMA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development make them available. The exact details of how this process will work aren't clear. But Houston Housing Authority President and CEO Tory Gunsolley said what is certain is that the overwhelming number of people all across the region seeking a dry home may lead to shortages in available units.

  The last resort, Gunsolley said, is to relocate people to provide them housing — as near as possible to their jobs, but possibly to other cities in Texas.

  "What happened in New Orleans with Katrina was that a lot of people had to leave the city, because there simply weren't enough (housing) units," Gunsolley said. "Given the scale we're talking about with Harvey, I don't know if everybody would be able to find an apartment in Houston today who needs an apartment."

  According to data compiled by Apartment Data Services and provided to the Houston Press by the Houston Apartment Association, 89.1 percent of Houston's approximately 639,000 apartment units were occupied just before Harvey hit, leaving about 70,000 vacant; 26,000 of those are luxury apartments. Andy Teas, vice president of public affairs for the Apartment Association, said Harvey's damage is still being assessed, but estimates have ranged between 40,000 and 100,000 units being flooded — including an unspecified number of vacant units.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY PETTY OFFICER 3RD CLASS TRAVIS MAGEE/U.S. COAST GUARD DISTRICT 8
  • Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Travis Magee/U.S. Coast Guard District 8

  Even if damage to an apartment is minor, Teas said, there's no telling how long repairs will take given the magnitude of demand for limited labor and supplies. That means many people may need assistance for a longer time. Homeowners in every part of Harris County also will need temporary apartments and repairs.

  Both Teas and Gunsolley said the situation is bound to put immense pressure on the rental market and worsen Houston's already acute affordable housing crisis, especially since most vacancies are in the upscale Class A housing market. Even in the lower-cost Class C markets, landlords who invest in repairs will want to charge more for rent to make up for the costs, Gunsolley said.

  "Somebody who needs a one- bedroom apartment for $600 a month, they already had a hard time finding an apartment like that before the flood," he said. "After the flood, it could be impossible to find a unit like that. I don't know if I'm being overly dramatic, because nobody has a full assessment yet of what we're talking about. That's a part of FEMA's job, collecting all of that information."

  FEMA currently is interviewing flood victims at shelters to assess their needs and determine what type of housing assistance is appropriate. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner repeatedly has stressed that FEMA and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) need to work as quickly as possible to help evacuees because shelters are not meant to be long-term solutions and evacuees already are itching to reclaim their lives. Turner said Ben Carson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has told him that plans for the temporary housing disaster relief programs are in the works.

  "What I am stressing on FEMA and on [HUD] is that the quicker we can process these requests and get something in people's hands that they can use to go to the next step, then the quicker we can transition them out of the shelters and back to their important lives," Turner said at a press conference a week after the storm. "We have to operate with a sense of urgency. We have to put ourselves in the shoes of homeowners who have been displaced, of people who are in shelters, and we have to ask, What would we want to see happen if we were in that situation?"

  For many, perhaps not relocation.

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY FEMA
  • Photo courtesy FEMA

Teas said he is hopeful Houston and area landlords and housing authorities can come together to find every available option for the region's newly homeless without having to uproot them. "Houston is a working city," Teas said. "People don't just need a place to sleep. They need somewhere where they can get to work."

  He said when Houston took in thousands of evacuees from New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he was amazed at the way individual landlords stepped up to accommodate them. He said he is confident Houston's landlords will make it happen again.

  "I'm still touched by how these very competitive, bottom line-driven business people just threw caution to the wind and opened up their properties," Teas said. "Our members jumped into that [Katrina housing] program with nothing but a promise that the city would find a way to pay them."

  Early estimates have pegged Harvey as being far costlier than Katrina — which caused more than $100 billion in damages — if not the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

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