Roughly one month after Harvey flooded the basement and damaged the fire-control system at the senior housing complex at 2100 Memorial, Gunsolley issued notices to vacate within five days to the 188 residents, saying their units were "totally unusable" for "residential purposes" — the language required to evict people after natural disaster damage under Texas law. But this had puzzled the residents — because not a single one of their units were flooded and they had both power and water.
"My apartment was in the same condition it was when I moved in three years ago," one resident, Paul Blinn, said in an interview. "I didn't see any reason to leave. There was nothing dangerous about it."
Earlier this week, State District Judge Daryl Moore seemed to agree, finding that Gunsolley had no justification to kick out the seniors — not only because the units were not "totally unusable" but also because it didn't appear that HHA had made any effort at all to try to fix the fire-control system and transformers.
Despite Gunsolley's testimony that he believed the transformers could fail and explode and that "there could be a fire at any point in time," Judge Moore found that Gunsolley lacked the expertise to reach this conclusion and nearly contradicted a report about the damage from the Houston Fire Department. In that September 8 report, the inspector gave HHA a deadline to repair the fire-protection system by October 13. In the meantime, an "approved fire watch or standby inspector" would stay on the premises around the clock (which has been the case), unless there was going to be an evacuation.
HHA missed the deadline — and still has not made repairs, according to the order.
"After receiving the [inspection] report, defendants made no attempts to cure the deficiencies in the report even though...deficiencies could have been cured on or before the October 13, 2017 deadline," Moore wrote. "Instead, on September 18, 2017, Tory Gunsolley...sent a letter attempting to terminate plaintiffs' lease agreements and directing them to evacuate the building within 5 days and to remove all of their personal possessions."
Further muddying the justification for Gunsolley's decision to send the seniors packing was that it cost HHA far more to assist the residents with moving expenses — it took out a $250,000 loan — than it would cost to just repair the fire system. Experts testified that repairing the fire system would cost $30,000 to $40,000, and Moore also said that it was unclear if the transformers Gunsolley said might blow up even truly needed replacing — the evidence was inconclusive. Either way, experts said those could be repaired in a few days if necessary.
"They're willing to pay a quarter of a million dollars to move them, but not pay, $60,000 or $70,000 to make the repairs?" said Rich Tomlinson, director of litigation for Lone Star Legal Aid, which represents the tenants. "That was our argument. I don't know why they did it this way. That is something I hope to learn."
At the hearing, residents who had medical conditions, including one undergoing treatment for large B-cell lymphoma, also testified about the serious difficulty that being forced to move on short notice would cause them — or "transfer trauma," as they called it. Judge Moore even put it on the record that he didn't believe that Gunsolley actually considered this, saying he found Gunsolley's testimony that he did to be "incredible."
"At the time he made the decision [to terminate the residents' leases], Mr. Gunsolley had not received any reports or objective information to support his subjective determination or his assertion that, as a practical matter, 2100 Senior Living had become totally unusable for residential purposes due to health and safety reasons," Moore wrote, adding, "Defendants, by refusing to even attempt to cure the deficiencies in the report, have not made their 'best efforts' to maintain 2100 Senior Living."
The HHA declined, through a PR firm, to comment for this story, citing pending litigation.
Moore ordered that HHA make the repairs within 45 days, request a re-inspection from the Houston Fire Department and test the transformers to see if they actually need to be replaced. He blocked HHA from terminating anyone's lease — until HHA can prove the apartments are "totally uninhabitable," which, given we are now two months removed from Harvey, seems more and more unlikely with each passing day.
Nothing has blown, caught fire or otherwise made the people still living there feel they are in danger, resident Paul Blinn said. He said Gunsolley's fear about the exploding transformers and fire hazards reminded him of when "Chicken Little said the sky was falling and everyone scattered" — which is exactly why he stayed put.