Far too many Houston renters lack an affordable place to live. Many more, including those with low incomes and people of color, lack a safe and sanitary place to call home.
Hurricane Harvey made that worse.
Last week Texas Housers joined UT Law professor Heather Way, leaders from the Sunnyside community, and members of FIEL to unveil Way’s report Out of Order: Houston’s Dangerous Apartment Epidemic. Way’s report drew from citywide data to explore conditions in ten apartment complexes in Houston’s Sunnyside neighborhood. Aging buildings built under lax code from the city’s boomtown days are home to 400,000 Houstonians. With a constrained supply of affordable housing ,only 18 units are available for every 100 needed by low-income families and the average wait for a public housing site through Houston Housing Authority is 18-24 months, low-income families are left with little choice but to live in dangerously maintained buildings to lower their cost burden.
The investigation the report is based on was conducted before Hurricane Harvey made landfall last August. During the storm, 43,000 apartment units were impacted, making Way’s recommendations all the more urgent.
Harvey’s toll on Houston’s many tenants was both physical and financial. Over five days the storm’s 60 inches of rain flooded apartment parking lots leaving many Houstonians without vehicles and causing some to lose their jobs. The heavy downpour also overwhelmed pipes in the areas, causing leaks and bursts that have led to triple digit water bills. Elsa, a former tenant of Rockport apartments in Southwest Houston, complained that despite damage throughout the complex following Harvey her landlord did not appear on site until a week after the storm. When he did appear, he told Elsa he was unable to move her family to an unaffected unit and to cut the (rotting) sheetrock out herself and remain in the apartment. Shoddy repairs by landlords, like painting over mold instead of pursuing remediation, have caused some families to break their leases to protect their health – negatively impacting their credit and financial future.
Of course, these are just the observable and quantifiable impacts of the storm on Houston’s tenants – 21 percent of whom live in buildings constructed between 1960 and 1979, which are particularly vulnerable to storms. The mental health outcomes of the storm have yet to be entirely felt, adults symptoms don’t peak until 18 months after an event, while children’s symptoms will crest at the six month anniversary of the storm. Anecdotally, however, the many disruptions caused by the storm only compounded the pre-existing stress of living in an out of code apartment with many residents saying they feel unheard and despondent. Another tenant shared the experiences of her neighbors at a North Houston property who because of missing refrigerators and stoves (despite being charged full rent) have to cook at each other’s apartments. Sharing her own story, the young mother spoke of trying to “get her life back on track” after losing her car and job in the storm, only to receive “the run-around, confusion, and miscommunication” from management when visiting her property manager’s office and completing work requests.
Despite half of all Houston residents being renters, there is no independent or nonprofit group that protects and advocates on behalf of tenants. Texas Housers and other community partners such as FIEL hope to change that. We’re encouraging tenants around the city to share photos of health and safety concerns in their apartment complexes or documentation, especially if they’ve been reported to 311 and continue to go unresolved, on social media using the hashtags #OutOfOrder and #descompuesto.
On February 27th, faith leaders and tenants from across the city will come together at a City Council meeting dedicated to public comment to provide further testimony about unacceptable conditions and advocate for practical solutions including the creation of a tenant’s council, the implementation of fines for repeat offenders and registration fees for all properties that can be used to fund more inspectors dedicated to protecting the health and safety of tenants.
Hurricane season is fast approaching and with it the possibility of more damaged and dangerous conditions in Houston’s apartments. As tenants begin to speak out, organize and demand action, the burden of addressing the faulty code enforcement system should not fall solely on them. It is up to the City of Houston to take action.
If you want more information about the city council meeting or social media campaign contact firstname.lastname@example.org.