Okay Houston, Where Are All These Displaced People Going to Live Now?

The George R. Brown Convention Center has been packed with people who had to leave their homes.
The George R. Brown Convention Center has been packed with people who had to leave their homes. Photo by Doogie Roux
When the water got over their knees, everything in the house started floating: books, toys, even the deep freezer, weighed down by frozen meats and even pots and pans. It came over the living room table, washing away the items the family had kept there, and even inched up to the pool table, where the family had temporarily taken refuge.

They didn’t think the water could have gotten that high, but in the early morning hours of Sunday, August 27, Cynthia Jones and her sister-in-law, Vanessa Byrd, and their husbands began scrambling in their flooded home to find important papers and their Bibles, to gather the kids — losing their shoes in the water — and to get out. They knew at that point that they would never be able to return to live in their duplex home in the Fifth Ward.

“We lost everything,” Byrd said. “I had to call my neighbor and ask, can we please come to your house? She said, how are you gonna get here? So we started wading through the water. Everybody was just crawling out of their houses.”

The Byrd and Jones families and their neighbors are among the tens of thousands of people in Houston and Harris County who will be seeking a temporary housing voucher once FEMA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development begin making them available. The exact details of how this process will work are not yet clear — but what is certain, said Houston Housing Authority President and CEO Tory Gunsolley, is that the overwhelming number of people all across the region and down the coast seeking a dry home may lead to shortages in available units, intensified by the possibility that units that were vacant before the flood may have flooded.

The last resort, Gunsolley said, is having to relocate people in order to provide them housing — as near as possible to their jobs, but possibly to other cities in Texas that were not quite as affected as Houston, if it comes down to it.

“What happened in New Orleans with Katrina was that a lot of people had to leave the city, because there simply weren’t enough units,” Gunsolley said. “Given the scale we’re talking about with Harvey, I don’t know if everybody would be able to find an apartment in Houston today who needs an apartment.”

According to data compiled by Apartment Data Services and provided to the Houston Press by the Houston Apartment Association, 89.1 percent of Houston’s approximately 639,000 apartment units were occupied just before Harvey hit, leaving about 70,000 vacant and most of those — 26,000 — in luxury apartments. Andy Teas, vice president of public affairs for the Apartment Association, said that Harvey’s damage is still being assessed and so numbers are far from certain, but that estimates have ranged between 40,000 and 100,000 units being flooded — including an untold number of vacant units.

Even if the damage is minor, Teas said there’s no telling how long repairs will take given the sheer magnitude of demand for the limited labor, meaning many people may need assistance for longer. And of course it’s not just apartment dwellers who will be seeking temporary apartments and repairs; it’s homeowners — in every part of the county.

Both Teas and Gunsolley said this is bound to put immense pressure on the rental market and worsen Houston’s already-acute affordable housing crisis, especially given that most vacancies are in the upscale Class A housing market. Even in the Class C markets, Gunsolley said, landlords who invest heavily in repairs are going to want to charge more for rent to make up for the losses.

“Somebody who needs a one-bedroom apartment for $600 a month, they already had a hard time finding an apartment like that before the flood,” Gunsolley said. “After the flood, it could be impossible to find a unit like that. I don’t know if I’m being overly dramatic, because nobody has a full assessment yet of what we’re talking about. That’s apart of FEMA’s job, collecting all of that information.”

FEMA is currently interviewing all flood victims at the shelters to assess their needs and what type of housing assistance may be appropriate. Mayor Sylvester Turner has repeatedly stressed that FEMA and HUD work as quickly as possible to help the evacuees, as the shelters are not meant to be long-term solutions and people are already itching to get back to their normal lives. He has said he has spoken with HUD Secretary Ben Carson and that plans for the temporary housing disaster relief programs are in the works.

“What I am stressing on FEMA and on [Carson] is that the quicker we can process these requests and get something in people's hands that they can use to go to the next step, then the quicker we can transition them out of the shelters and back to their important lives,” Turner said at a press conference Wednesday. “We have to operate with a sense of urgency. We have to put ourselves in the shoes of homeowners who have been displaced, of people who are in shelters, and we have to ask, what would we want to see happen if we were in that situation?”

For many, perhaps not relocation.

Teas said he is hopeful that Houston- and Harris County-area landlords and housing authorities can come together to seek out every available option for the region’s new homeless without having to uproot them. “Houston is a working city,” Teas said. “People don’t just need a place to sleep. They need somewhere where they can get to work.”

He said that, during Hurricane Katrina back in 2005, when Houston took in thousands of refugees, he was amazed at the way individual landlords stepped up to accommodate them. He said he is confident that, no matter how bad the circumstances, Houston’s landlords will make it happen again.

“I’m still touched by how these very competitive, bottom-line-driven business people just threw caution to the wind and opened up their properties,” Teas said. “Our members jumped into that [Katrina housing] program with nothing but a promise that the city would find a way to pay them.”

At this time, early predictions have pegged Hurricane Harvey as being far costlier than Katrina — if not the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn