The 188 seniors living at 2100 Memorial all received the same piece of paper at their doors on Monday, from the Houston Housing Authority: They would be required to vacate their apartments in five days.
They didn't understand: There had been some flooding problems on the first floor, they said, but their apartment homes on the upper 12 floors seemed fine. In fact, some residents told City Council that they or their neighbors received notices from FEMA telling them sorry, they were ineligible for assistance because their apartments were habitable. How come the Houston Housing Authority was kicking them out?
"Many people didn’t know where they could go," said Rich Tomlinson, director of litigation with Lone Star Legal Aid, which is assisting the elderly tenants at the complex. "They really need assistance to do anything, because they’re mobility-challenged. The five-day notice caused a huge amount of stress among many of these residents."
HHA has said that it has asked all residents to leave because the first floor and basement of 2100 Memorial, a Low-Income Housing Tax Credit senior-living facility, took on significant floodwater during Harvey, damaging building systems including the electrical system, the fire-control system and the water-pump system, threatening the safety of tenants. But residents say the way HHA has gone about evicting them has amounted to exactly the type of behavior that Mayor Sylvester Turner has asked private landlords not to exhibit — let alone a government agency.
Paula Settler told council members the HHA's actions have been "reprehensible," saying the agency "let the residents down who have been doing their level best to keep paying the rent. [They've] left us high and dry." Another, Sheila Henderson, said that while the HHA provided housing vouchers, it initially said residents would have to find new places on their own and pay for moving expenses and deposits.
That was before City Hall stepped in.
Now, after Turner directed the HHA to show leniency, assigning Houston Housing and Community Development Director Tom McCasland to monitor the situation, HHA has made some changes. On Thursday, HHA announced that it had identified 230 other Low-Income Housing Tax Credit units in Greater Houston with similar living and rent structures (which are likely far from 2100 Memorial), and 250 other affordable-housing units residents "may" be eligible for. The HHA Board of Commissioners also authorized a $250,000 loan to help assist the residents with moving expenses. (A spokesperson took additional questions about whether this relocation plan was in place for 2100 Memorial residents before the five-day notices were issued, rather than a result of City Hall's influence, but HHA did not provide answers by press time.)
Update, 3:45 p.m.: HHA clarified that this relocation plan was in fact in place prior to issuing the five-day notices. The moving-expense assistance was just approved on Thursday.
McCasland told the Houston Press Thursday that, at the request of residents, his department conducted its own assessment of the damage to 2100 Memorial to make sure it truly was as uninhabitable as HHA claimed, and reached the same conclusion. He said it was clear that no matter where residents are relocated, it's not going to make the sudden displacement any easier for them.
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"The big issue is that these residents are moving from a community that they love, and while some of them mentioned there are some maintenance issues pre-storm, there seems to be a very strong community there, and that’s being pulled apart," McCasland said. "There was some real emotional heartbreak there. As we find places for them to stay, whether it’s on a temporary basis or a long-term basis until the building is ready to take residents back, they’re going to be in places that are less than ideal. There are no good answers here."
The HHA has acknowledged that the move may take residents longer than five days, and that leniency will be granted. McCasland said the city is committed to ensuring that once repairs are completed, the building remains a senior-living facility and the residents asked to move this week be allowed to come back.
Many of them seemed to fear that HHA and the building's management would simply reinvent the apartment complex once it reopened, and that they would never be able to go back home.
"I just want to make sure y’all don’t just get rid of us because we’re easy to get rid of, because we’re elderly," one resident, Ben Clark, told City Council Tuesday. "That’s all I’m asking for."