Tag Archives: houston

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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Sorting Out Substance from Scams in Relief Funds

Residents are evacuated from their flooded apartment complex Tuesday, April 19, 2016, in Houston. Storms have dumped more than a foot of rain in the Houston area, flooding dozens of neighborhoods. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

New Orleans  I’m looking forward to driving to Houston this week to finish a trip that was unbelievably storm delayed. Even though Beaumont, Texas not far across the Louisiana border is still without potable water, and neighborhoods in Houston are still flooded, Interstate 10 runs through it all on an open road from New Orleans to the Pacific Ocean, and I’ll be pedal to the metal to get there.

I’m hoping to sort out who is really on the ground doing the job. Having been too intimately involved in post-Katrina work in New Orleans, that is the key to recovery, not necessarily the heroes and goats in the first wake of the storm and the tally of dollars for relief. There were plenty of both though. A local mattress company and an Academy Sports location have gotten rave reviews for their open arms and generosity, just as Joel Osteen and his megachurch and gospel of prosperity has been pilloried for the lack of both. Houston is a big time corporate headquarters and some big timers have stepped up including the Michael Dell of Dell Computers with a pledge of $36 million and the John and Laura Anderson Foundation of Enron energy trading fame with $5 million. JJ Watt, the Houston Texas NFL star, supported by his mom back home in small town Wisconsin has soared from a goal of $200,000 to crest $18 million and rising. An equally enjoyable story is the complete embrace of far right conservatives like Texas governor Greg Abbot and cantankerous Senator Ted Cruz of as much money as they can score from their much hated and abused federal government. Abbot has set the price tag at $180 billion wanting Texas to have the record in this category as well.

Watt’s mom is worried about how to spend the money as well she and the donors should be. At least President Trump didn’t endorse specific charities in the way that George W Bush propped Habitat for Humanity and the Red Cross. Habitat raised over $300 million after Katrina and a dozen years later is still accounting for how it spent the money since its sweat equity model was out-strapped by the need for housing PDQ, rather than in the by and by. Houston is likely to have a similar problem with public housing displacements at over 30,000 and schools and jobs still inaccessible for many people. People will need housing, but where do you build on the same flood plains, and who is making the plans and where are people in the process? These are critical questions with 50,000 in hotel rooms now and only 1500 still in the George Brown Convention Center. These are also questions that were poorly answered after Katrina over and over as we continually had to fight against displacement and for quicker movement of funds.

People need to be at the table. In Houston under Mayor Bill White after Katrina, he wisely convened a daily morning meeting to make sure up to 100,000 Katrina survivors were welcomed and housed. At that meeting were chief executives of Fortune 500 companies and the business elite, as well as representatives from ACORN. White strong armed the Houston real estate interests to open up all of their available rental units to Katrina survivors. Current Mayor Sylvester Turner needs to do the same thing.

While doing the right thing, avoid the scamsters. Social media and crowdfunding are hot with appeals, but beware. Websites are springing up willy-nilly as always. Money is going to be needed for a long time from Houston to Beaumont. There’s no harm in making sure that your few dollars are going where the impact will be the greatest, but it may take some time to sort that out. That’s one of the things I’ll be doing this week, so stay ready and willing, but be careful.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail