One month in a shelter was enough for Brid’gell Rice.
She had been a resident at Clayton Homes, a Houston Housing Authority public housing complex right behind Buffalo Bayou — but she knew after she left for the George R. Brown Convention Center with her tote bag and her dog that there would be no point in returning. The water was up to her chest when she evacuated on foot, after water poured through the baseboards, through the walls in the bathroom, the kitchen, the living room.
Still, even though she was sleeping on a cot after the flood while her unit was entirely uninhabitable, Rice said the rent was still due.
“They told us we still had to pay,” Rice said, “and that’s why I went and got an attorney.”
The move had put the HHA in hot water with residents — but on Thursday, it appeared the agency had been forgiven, even as it was announcing that people in 112 units would have to find a new place to live. By now, everyone who paid rent has been refunded for last month and HHA is not accepting rent for this month either. And by Wednesday, residents of the 112 units that were extensively flooded — like Rice’s — and those that are still contaminated with mold will have vouchers in their hands to find a new home, wherever the voucher is accepted by private landlords.
As HHA President Tory Gunsolley announced the news to a packed community center at Clayton Homes, residents erupted in applause and cheers. Rice, who is epileptic, said she was so happy she was afraid she was going to have a seizure.
“Can we go anywhere in Texas?” she asked Gunsolley.
“Anywhere in America,” he said.
And the HHA would provide $1,200 for moving expenses, or provide movers and boxes if residents stayed local.
“He made my day when he said that, because I’ve always thought of moving to different places,” Rice said afterward. “Anywhere in America? I couldn’t believe it.”
The response from Clayton Homes residents to the mandatory move-outs starkly differs from the reactions from 188 seniors at an HHA senior-living facility who received notices to vacate last month. When HHA told the seniors there that, because of flooding damage in the basement, they would need to be moved out in five days, they responded with a lawsuit, saying their apartments themselves were fine and HHA had no right to kick them out on short notice. (HHA then removed the five-day deadline and offered moving assistance, but maintained the building systems were too damaged to allow the seniors to stay.)
At Clayton Homes, Gunsolley told the Houston Press he went through a different process to get the emergency transfer vouchers — namely, by filing a demolition application with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
That means the HHA is not going to repair the 112 damaged units. Despite the fact that experts hired by the HHA to examine the property found E. coli, arsenic and plenty of mold on the property thanks to contaminated floodwaters, Gunsolley said HHA decided it was not worth it to do repairs since the Texas Department of Transportation informed the agency and residents that Clayton Homes would be taken by eminent domain in the near future: It falls in the line of fire of the mammoth I-45 highway expansion.
“It didn’t make sense to spend millions of dollars bringing them back online only to have to give them up in another year or two,” Gunsolley said. “Have we cleaned out units and done flood cuts? Yes. Have we repaired the damage? No. The repairs would have been millions of dollars.” (Asked why it would cost millions, he said he estimated it would cost $50,000 to repair each unit.)
Gunsolley said most residents are not living in the severely damaged units (though some at the meeting who live on the second floor complained of feeling sick because of mold). Some residents are with family and friends, others are in hotels through FEMA, and 21 people were offered emergency transfers to other available public housing units through HHA. But after those units were taken, HHA had no more available, and started offering people transfers to public housing units in San Antonio, Dallas or Austin.
Which no one liked.
“I was upset when they offered that,” said one woman, who received a voucher Thursday and asked not to be named. “I had just enrolled at HCC. How was I going to stay?”
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Gunsolley said the HHA is only just now able to relocate everybody because it had to wait on the funding to come through for vouchers from HUD, which had put a freeze on vouchers in Houston in the spring. The vouchers can, in fact, be used at any apartment that accepts them in the United States.
“We didn’t have these vouchers initially. We were doing emergency transfers from the very beginning, but I only had just a handful of vacant units just after the storm,” Gunsolley said. “I couldn’t accommodate everybody who wanted an emergency transfer right away.”
Gunsolley said there is currently no deadline for when residents have to be all moved out.
Apparently, the HHA had at least learned that lesson from the seniors at 2100 Memorial.