System Failure

Tropical Storm Allison destroyed houses that never quite got fixed, thanks to bureaucratic bungling and cheaters

Steve Skeete, assistant director of housing, offered a brief interview two weeks after first being contacted by the Houston Press. He said that past practices of the department have seriously hurt its ability to respond to the needs of Houston families. Poor record-keeping by department employees paired with poor nonprofit performance has made locating homeowners promised assistance before the November '03 shutdown extremely difficult, Skeete said.

"I can't say that all of them have been contacted at this point, because each day there's a new name that comes up and that has been one of the most frustrating things we have encountered," Skeete said. In its renewed dependence on HUD, the city draws exclusively from a list of certified contractors that are cross-referenced against those blacklisted by HUD. The program operates with only five employees and must rely on city funds to do its work. HUD inspectors check the majority -- though not all -- of the city's jobs, he added. Only after a HUD or city inspector clears a job can the city then seek reimbursement from the agency. Those at the top of the housing department's repair list are those who were previously promised help that never arrived.

"What we're looking for is some kind of documentation that they entered into an agreement for services and one of those four services failed to honor that commitment in a timely fashion. Those who have received prior assistance, we're going to take a look at them as well, but those that were committed to receiving assistance and did not receive any -- those are our target population that we're looking to try to service first," Skeete said.

Maxine Jackson is still waiting for her home to be 
made habitable.
Daniel Kramer
Maxine Jackson is still waiting for her home to be made habitable.
Delta Thomas hasn't had the heart to tell her 
ten-year-old daughter that they aren't "going home."
Daniel Kramer
Delta Thomas hasn't had the heart to tell her ten-year-old daughter that they aren't "going home."

As things stand, it is hard for the department to even take on two jobs at a time. Each new case goes directly to the bottom of the list, which now stands at 250, unless a property owner can prove that he should be higher up.

After more than a year, Caldwell's case is still under investigation, he said, and has not yet been added to the list.

FEMA deemed Caldwell's house livable after performing more minor repairs through its Disaster Recovery program in 2002. Over the next three years she dealt with United Way, Catholic Charities, the Urban League and the city's Emergency Home Repair Program. In a seven-page certified letter sent to Mayor Bill White seven months ago, Caldwell said that her insistence on volunteers obtaining proper city permits was a big part of what led to several pulling off the job prematurely. "What I'm realizing is this is a pattern. It's against the elderly that can't speak up for themselves. The more things started happening to me, I realized there are big agencies involved."

The former law firm secretary needs a spinal cord surgery. Her decision to stay in her home, to keep fighting the city for repairs, has pushed that back for more than two years. Her doctor won't operate until she is living in a mold-free environment and the risk of infection is reduced. So Caldwell relies on pain medication and frequent batteries of antibiotics. Since her hospital bed was tossed out with the rest of her moldy furniture, she can't prop up her head properly at night and her throat is bleeding more often. That has meant more regular infections.

When the Houston Area Urban League inspector Dale Brown, who is no longer with the organization and could not be reached for comment, made his initial assessment of her home in February 2003 -- two years after Allison -- he wrote that flood repairs had been left incomplete. Foundational, plumbing and electrical problems needed to be resolved. Topping the list was the broken sewer line under the house that was still bubbling up along the driveway where the foundation had dropped. But Brown washed his hands of Caldwell after numerous disagreements regarding repairs. He kept warning her of a gas leak -- a nascent threat in a home where several oxygen tanks were located -- but admonished her not to call the gas company to check it because they would "take away her meter," she says. Nevertheless, her sister called the company and reps couldn't find a leak anywhere, she says. She refused to sign the change order, inspiring the Urban League to pull out, leaving her without heat that winter. Brown and his contractor claimed a carbon monoxide leak, which they refused to fix, according to Caldwell, made lighting the pilot unadvisable.

Sylvia Brooks, president of the Houston Area Urban League, says Brown told her the work had been completed and that Caldwell had moved out of the house. She says she only later found out that wasn't the case. The correction came in a stream of scalding letters accusing the agency of performing shoddy work, digging unnecessary trenches in her backyard that led to a termite infestation, illegally placing forged permits on her front door, leaving raw sewage draining from the yard into the street and breaking her attic ladder.

The project was later red-tagged by the city because of the sewage issue.

"I'm not a contractor or anything, and this is not my area of expertise, but it sounds like it's just been -- I don't know whether I'd say just a lot of errors -- but…I don't know if it's been diagnosed correctly nor was the money invested to do it right," Brooks says. "It certainly doesn't sound like the contractor -- or our inspector -- nobody was pleased with what anybody was doing."

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