Houston Landlords and Banks Need Pressure, Tenants and Owners Need Help

Photo: Elizabeth Conley, Houston Chronicle
Community organizer Alain Cisneros talks to Rockport Apartment residents about the damage to their homes following Tropical Storm Harvey.

Houston  Going into Beaumont on Interstate 10, one exit after another was still closed off. Water was still standing. Trailers in a park near a small lake were still submerged with water coming up to the shoulder of the highway. Spotted along the route in one random location after another were abandoned cars and trucks, some with hoods propped up, some in the middle of the median, and others seeming to have almost made it to high ground, but then flooded.

Coming into Houston city limits on the north side of I-10, trash heaps, dumpsters, and tractor trailer rigs were now the landmarks. The giant Fiesta grocery store that was once our rendezvous point for driving into town to see the Astros play, was now a clean-out and construction zone. Motels were lined up with doors swung open and heaps of trash in their lots. Once in town, everything seemed almost normal in the city center. Talking to one storm refugee, he commented that he was flooded out and got out of his apartment after hours of bailing and waiting for the end and realizing that the water just kept rising, but once out of his place, he couldn’t see a pattern. One building would be gone and another untouched.

Much of the Houston recovery tragedy is invisible from the highway of course. I talked to Alain Cisnerous and Caesar Espinoza with F.I.E.L., which in Spanish is Familias Immigrantes y Estudiantes en La Lucha or Immigrant Families and Students in Struggle. The organization had been founded a decade ago with the original mission of helping immigrant students figure out financing to afford college, but had more recently focused on DACA and more general issues facing the immigrant community. Needless to say their plate was already overflowing their capacity.

And, then comes Harvey. They told me stories that were outrageous. In southwest Houston, a largely Hispanic area in many sections with thousands of apartment complexes, flooding had been severe. FIEL had visited with families trying to escape the water who had gone to the upper floors of their buildings for shelter and found they were nothing but shells, framed with wooden studs. Families that ended up at the convention center and elsewhere with apartments that were uninhabitable were getting texts and calls from their landlords about rent payments and late fees that would double their normal payments. In one case, a family unable to return would now owe $1200 a month because of fees and penalties on rent that had been $500. This is outrageous.

I asked whether Houston’s progressive and well-regarded mayor, Sylvester Turner, had jawboned the Apartment Association on the issue of opening up vacant units for the displaced and waiving rent and fees for abandoned units. They answered, no. Mayors and New Orleans and Houston had done so after Katrina for refugees. Why not Houston’s own people who are now under the gun? Had banks offered forbearance to mortgage payers who were underwater, literally, and waived foreclosures? Once again, they indicated nothing had been done like this to their knowledge, though ACORN had easily been able to win a number of six month extensions after Katrina. Was there a daily meeting in the Mayor’s office to coordinate the recovery, like Houston’s former mayor, Bill White, had organized? Was there a coalition of nonprofits making sure that equitable plans were produced for rebuilding and distributing relief money? No, no, not that anyone I met knew.

There is probably a lot of this happening somewhere at some level, but it definitely has not sunk down to the grassroots where FIEL and others are working. Lessons have to be learned from disasters, but I was disturbed in Houston that so many of them were so easily being forgotten.

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Exploiting Immigrants Old School in Arkansas-Mississippi Delta

Ottawa   Almost every month for the last 3 ½ years I’ve driven through the Lake Village area of southern Arkansas and more recently back and forth across the bridge to Greenville, one way or another, as well. Along the lakeside past the fishing docks, the boat launches, the catfish and barbecue places I’ve often done a double take when I see Regina’s Pasta Shop, heralding the “Italian Tradition” on the banks of Lake Chicot, and thought to myself, “what in the world is that doing here” in the middle of cotton and soybean country?

The mystery was both solved and deepened as the layers of the answer to that question were revealed in an uncharacteristically long piece in The Economist of all places. The eyebrow, headline and sub-head of the story tell a lot of the tale in a spoiler alert. The eyebrow said: “Immigration’s forgotten history.” The headline was “Moses in the Ozarks.” The subhead was: “The ordeal of Italian labourers is a parable of race and migration in the Deep South.” The dateline was both Lake Village in the south and Tontitown in Ozarks of Arkansas near Springdale, the city now famous as the worldwide headquarters of Walmart.

The story starts in 1861 at the Sunnyside plantation owned by Elisha Worthington who shocked the local community not by fathering two children by a slave, but by recognizing them. After the Civil War the plantation passed hands several times ending up with Austin Corbin, described by the business-conservative Economist as “a robber-baron financier and railroad speculator, who, as a founding member of the American Society for the Suppression of the Jews, barred them from the hotel he built on Coney Island.” He couldn’t find labor so he imported families from Genoa, Italy through New Orleans and up the Mississippi River to Sunnyside on a land contract scam, where they bought acreage with sharecropping credit on future cotton crops. Many died. All of the Italians lived through terrible discrimination against them that was common at the time and well into the 1930s, highlighted by the infamous lynching of 11 Italians in New Orleans in 1891.

The “Moses” of this story was a Jesuit priest from Italy sent as a missionary to Native Americans in Montana and later assigned to New York to “minister to put-upon Italians,” as they write. He bought land west of Springdale, Arkansas in the Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. Forty families ditched their land contracts and somehow traversed Arkansas in an arduous and lengthy journey. The pioneers founded Tontitown, named after Henri de Tonti, a 17th century Italian explorer. Despite the neighbors hostility, which included burning down the first Catholic church, Father Bandini was the “town’s teacher, band leader and first mayor, as well as its priest.” Grapes were imported and despite the poorer soil, the cooler temperatures led to a wine industry still present in the area.

As for the Sunnyside shame and scandal, the Justice Department sent an investigator down in 1917 who stopped the importation of Italian immigrants. Their footprints are deep though. There is a part of Greenville called Little Italy. Lake Village became home to many where churches and traditions survived. Discrimination also grew there from the Ku Klux Klan. On the receiving end of prejudice, as The Economist writes, “is a sort of shadow version of African-Americans’, the hardship milder and the ending sweeter.”

There are still modern lessons to be learned from the hidden history of places like these all around us.

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