Bayou City

Red Tape Is Stalling Houston Debris Pickup for Residents on Private Streets

Memorial Drive Townhouses in west Houston cleared out much of the debris since Harvey, but not with city funding.
Memorial Drive Townhouses in west Houston cleared out much of the debris since Harvey, but not with city funding. Photo by Joseph Fanelli
At Memorial Drive Townhouses, a collection of single-family homes off Memorial in west Houston, debris pickup from Hurricane Harvey has been a slow but steady process.

The trash that littered the front lawns of homes, caused by water leaked from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, has mostly vanished, with debris behind the houses still left for pickup. But the street that splits the homes is only wide enough for a pair of sedans, not the large trucks needed for debris removal.

Plus, like many other residents who live along private streets or in gated communities in Houston, those in Memorial Drive Townhouses are on their own.

“After such a catastrophe [as] this, we did expect maybe there’d be some kind of assistance,” said Bryan Pierce, a property manager with Genesis Community Management, which runs Memorial Townhouses.

While Houston City Council members, like District G Councilman Greg Travis, have pushed city officials to assist residents on private streets, the Harris County Engineering Department and Houston Solid Waste Management have been hamstrung by red tape and Federal Emergency Management Agency regulations, which fund private pickups only for situations that threaten “public health and safety or the economic recovery of the community,” according to FEMA spokesman Peter Herrick. To become eligible, local governments must submit specific requests to FEMA’s Public Assistance Program asking for help and proving that the removal is in the public interest.

But as of last week, Herrick said, neither the county nor the city had submitted requests for pickup on private properties. Councilman Travis said he has spoken with city officials several times and been assured the city will request FEMA money for private pickups, although he said that hasn’t happened yet. Irma Reyes, spokeswoman for Houston Solid Waste, said on Friday that the city’s legal department is working with FEMA “to approve a program to assist those who are in a private street or gated community.” Dimetra Hamilton, a spokeswoman for Harris County Engineering, also reiterated that the county is working with FEMA, adding that right-of-entry laws prohibiting public vehicles from entering without permission are slowing the process as well.

Still, Travis said FEMA shouldn’t slow down pickup for private streets.

“We should be picking up people from private streets regardless,” said Travis, who had extensive flooding in his district because of the runoff from the reservoirs. “FEMA’s reimbursement shouldn’t dictate to us what we’re responsible for to people who pay city taxes.”

Meanwhile, Fort Bend County received approval from FEMA on September 20 and started picking up those areas two days later, according to Fort Bend County road commissioner Marc Grant, who spent September 21 with FEMA officials to designate private streets and gated communities in need of pickup. In total, Grant said, Fort Bend County approved about 25 gated communities and private streets.

Residents in Harris County and Houston aren’t waiting around for the local agencies. Pierce said the homeowners association with Memorial Drive Townhouses has spent about $34,000 on a private contractor to remove debris, and two gated communities in Katy, Estates of Baker Lane and Arcadia, have also used private companies to remove debris, according to Kathy Grabein, accounting manager with King Property Management, which runs the two communities.

Memorial Townhouses has dealt with some flooding in the past — a few homes flooded during the Tax Day floods in 2016 and the Memorial Day floods in 2015 — but Harvey marked the first time the entire property flooded. The homeowners submitted a budget that capped total spending at $65,000, but Pierce, the property manager, said spending will likely exceed that. The final bill will ultimately be split among about 194 homes.

Whether or not the association will ultimately seek reimbursement from the city is unclear. FEMA can only compensate state and local agencies and while Solid Waste didn’t provide answers about reimbursement, Harris County expressed skepticism at the idea.

But those questions will have to be answered later. Pierce and the Memorial homeowners don’t have time to wait.

“Once the dust settles, they might think about it,” Pierce said. “As of right now we’re just clearing it up so we can get the mess out of there versus going back and forth with who's responsible for what.”
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Joseph Fanelli is a reporting fellow at the Houston Press with an interest in education, crime and eccentric people everywhere.