After the Houston Housing Authority asked 188 seniors living at 2100 Memorial to vacate their apartments on short notice, the residents have now sued the agency and the property owner, asking a judge to rule that they be allowed to remain in their homes while repairs are done.
Tory Gunsolley, executive director of the HHA and vice president of V.J. Memorial Corp, which owns the property, issued notices to all residents last week, saying that they and their belongings would need to be out of the apartments in five days because the building had become "totally unusable for residential purposes
due to health and safety reasons."
To the residents, who had been living in their un-flooded apartments with power and running water since Harvey, the notice came as a shock. The basement and the first floor, where nobody lives, had flooded, necessitating building repairs — but not to the point that their homes seemed totally useless, they said.
HHA has said that the electrical and fire-control systems were harmed, as well as the water system — damages that "pose a safety threat to residents," particularly a fire hazard.
But Rich Tomlinson, litigation director at Lone Star Legal Aid, which represents the residents, said that HHA has provided "no evidence" that these damages are so extensive that all residents must leave. The only time landlords can terminate leases after a disaster, he said, is if a unit is totally uninhabitable, which is somewhat of an undefinable term. If units are partly uninhabitable, then tenants can seek a rent reduction — and remain in their units while repairs are done, the option Tomlinson said is much more amenable for the tenants, all of whom are older than 60.
"What the residents are saying is their apartments have not been damaged by Harvey," Tomlinson said. "If there was a problem, it was on the first floor, and the question is, do you permanently deprive people of the right to stay there — people who have lived there for many years — and make them leave on very short notice? It's difficult to find a place that's affordable for them, and it’s an extremely stressful event for them. Why not make those repairs and make the place complete and allow them to stay?"
After residents stormed City Council last week to complain about the notices, Mayor Sylvester Turner directed Tom McCasland, director of the Houston Housing and Community Development Department, to oversee the process. The department independently assessed the damage and reached the same conclusion as HHA, McCasland said last week. Still, the city has urged HHA to be lenient and to provide more flexibility for the residents.
On Thursday, HHA's Board of Commissioners approved a $225,000 loan to further assist the residents with moving expenses, and made clear that residents would have longer than five days to find a new place. HHA has identified 230 Low-Income Housing Tax Credit apartment units across the Greater Houston region with similar rent structures (2100 Memorial also falls under the LIHTC program), as well as 250 affordable housing units that the seniors can relocate to. The seniors were given a list of these locations to call for vacancies.
An HHA spokesperson declined to answer additional questions about why the units were all designated totally rather than partially uninhabitable and about how long repairs would take, instead sending a statement: "As Houston rebuilds and recovers from Hurricane Harvey, our top priority [is] to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our residents. The Houston Housing Authority remains steadfast to its mission of providing safe, affordable and quality housing to low-income, elderly and disabled residents across the city. The HHA does not comment on pending litigation."
Tomlinson said it does not appear that HHA has made reasonable efforts to make those necessary repairs since the flood, a claim he said Lone Star Legal Aid intends to add to an amended complaint this week. At least 15 more plaintiffs will also join the lawsuit soon, he said.
"It's been a month since the storm hit," he said. "If you need a new fire-control panel, you can order that and install a new one. They've had a month to fix it, and people have been living there the whole time."
HHA has said that once repairs are done and the building can reopen, the seniors who live there now will be given priority to come back.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.