In battered Houston apartments, residents wonder whether to stay
As Collingwood Gardens apartments' tenants weigh their options, Texas officials admit state funds to help displaced people are woefully inadequate and wait to see what aid package Congress approves.
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HOUSTON — The pool in the Collingwood Gardens apartment complex is a pale muddy green. The sidewalks are lined with soggy sheetrock and mildewy cabinets that have been ripped from dozens of units. The air smells like mold.
It's hard to imagine anyone living here. But for Latoya Ray, the conditions are nothing new. If you live in this portion of the Greenspoint neighborhood, she said, you're familiar with life after a flood.
"I have been out here for eight years," she said. "It must be cursed on this road because, when it floods, this road is an ocean."
A curse isn't to blame. Collingwood sits next to a waterway called Greens Bayou in a 100-year floodplain — an area with a 1 percent chance of flooding each year, and one where many scientists and experts say no one should live. That's true for much of the surrounding neighborhood of Greenspoint, on the northern edge of Houston, which is home to some of the city's poorest residents and has long been victim to the city's insufficient flood-prevention infrastructure.
In the past 18 months, Greens Bayou has had two major floods.
Those deluges have placed Ray and her neighbors among tens of thousands of southeast Texans who now face a tough question: Is it time to move away from areas prone to flooding? Figuring out an answer isn’t always easy — especially when you’re a renter who lives paycheck to paycheck.
As Congress continues working out a multi-billion-dollar aid package that could include help for low-income renters, Texas lawmakers are already admitting that the amount of state money available to help residents with short- and long-term housing needs are woefully deficient.
"The more we're waiting, the more we're going to make our citizens suffer," state Rep. Jarvis Johnson, a Houston Democrat, said Thursday at a House Urban Affairs Committee meeting.
State officials told committee members that a combination of low state funding levels and uncertainty about how federal lawmakers plan to administer aid is hamstringing their ability to offer substantial immediate help.
Tim Irvine, executive director of the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, said his agency has identified more than $45 million available to spend on helping people whose homes were damaged or destroyed — after a disaster whose estimated price tag could reach $200 billion.
Irvine admitted the amount available is "absolutely" inadequate for what's needed. And officials with the state's General Land Office said they're waiting on federal lawmakers' aid package to know how they'll be able to pitch in.
"It is an unfortunate and very frustrating position to be in right now," said Anne Idsal, that agency's chief clerk and deputy land commissioner.
In Washington, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, appeared with other Texas members of Congress Thursday and said that state lawmakers should consider using money from Texas' $10 billion Rainy Day Fund to pay for recovery efforts.
'It's not the best neighborhood'
Ray, who works as a security guard at Houston City Hall, said she is fed up with her part of town. Even before Harvey, she had been dealing with burglaries. And her rent is now $800 per month for a two-bedroom apartment that she shares with her fiancé and stepson, $165 per month higher than before the 2016 flood.
"It's not the best neighborhood to be in," she said. "But sometimes in order to have a roof over your head, you've got to do what you've got to do."
When the flooding from Harvey submerged the parking lot at Collingwood, many residents drove their cars onto the grass hugging the two-story buildings protected by a fence topped with razor wire. But the water kept rising and soon began to seep into resident's individual units. By the time the flooding subsided, the damage was so extensive that management gutted most of the units, tearing out carpet, cabinets and plumbing fixtures.
On Wednesday, most of that trash remained in piles throughout the complex.
Compared to her neighbors, Ray avoided catastrophe. She has been flooded so often — she lost her beloved Honda station wagon in Tropical Storm Allison and a brand new living room set in last year's Tax Day flood — that she knows how to keep the damage to a minimum.
As the storm creeped near this time, she drove her Mitsubishi to a Dollar General store on higher ground. Then she loaded up on bottled water and canned meat. The water seeped under the door, but the damage was minimal — there's some mold, but she's one of the few first-floor residents who does not have to gut her entire unit.
Still, she's fed up. On Wednesday, she was pondering a move to Katy — a prosperous suburb west of Houston. But that might just be a dream, she admitted. Relocating that far would be expensive, and Katy experienced flooding from Harvey, too.
"If I am going to get flooded, I want to at least get flooded in an area that's nice," she said.
Before Harvey hit, the Houston-area apartment market was largely considered a renter's dream. As the region's economy roared in recent years, builders scurried to keep pace with the demand for housing. After the oil and gas bust, the inventory of new apartments and slow-down in new renters led to an increase of vacant rental dwellings.
Industry leaders hope that the glut of empty apartments will work to the region's advantage as people seek new complexes to live in, homeowners look for short-term rentals to wait out repairs to their houses and an influx of insurance adjusters and contractors temporarily move to the area.
'It's not so simple to leave'
The two-bedroom, first-floor apartment in the Collingwood complex that Latoya Green shares with her mom and five sons took on six to eight inches of water. Days after the storm, she had thrown out many of her possessions. It was the second life-altering storm she's faced in a dozen years. She moved to Houston from New Orleans in 2005 after she lost everything in Hurricane Katrina.
"It is hard to pick up the pieces," she said. "It is so sad, so heartbreaking."
She said she'll move out at the first opportunity, but she doesn't know when that will be. It's hard to cobble together money for a deposit or increased rent when you're trying to replace damaged clothes and furniture.
"It's not so simple to leave," she said.
One big question is looming over residents' heads as they try to figure out their next steps: Will they still owe rent for current apartments? The Collingwood Gardens apartment manager declined an interview request Wednesday, saying the owner, listed in Harris County records as a holding company based in Toronto, had given strict instructions not to speak to the media.
One resident said he was still required to pay rent after the 2016 flood, even though it took as long as three months to make their apartments livable again. That made it even harder to move.
"This time, I'm not going to pay rent," said Jim Sauceda, a retiree who lives in Collingwood with his girlfriend. "I'll go to court if I have to."
Sauceda rode out the storm in his apartment, watching television in his living room even as the water reached his ankles. Once it receded, workers removed his carpet and tore out the bottom two feet of drywall from his interior walls. He threw out his beds, couches and tables.
He's still sleeping there, even though part of the wall separating his apartment from his neighbors' has been replaced with clear plastic sheeting. On Tuesday night, he looked down from his television and saw a cat staring at him.
"I didn't leave the first time because they said they were going to install carpet and everything new — that sounded good," he said. "But now that it's happened again, I don't know what to do."
Neena Satija and Abby Livingston contributed reporting.
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