'We don't have anything': landlords demand rent on flooded Houston homes

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Rocio Fuentes weighed up the cost of getting some new sofas for her new apartment in Pasadena, Texas, and decided the family budget could just about stretch to it. Just one month after moving in, Hurricane Harveyswept through and the Fuenteses were left not only with the ruined furniture but also an ongoing rental demand for a dwelling they had to flee.
“At first we didn’t think it would be that bad, but then the water came through the wall and up through the carpet,” Fuentes said. “Once we saw the water wasn’t going to stop, we left.”

Fuentes, her husband Jaime and their five children, ages ranging from seven months to 14 years, were plucked from the floodwaters by her mother, who arrived in a truck. They are now crammed into her sister’s apartment and with no insurance have little idea where they will live next. Jaime is unable to earn money because his construction job has been paused due to the flooding.
But while everything has changed for this family, they are still expected to pay for their abandoned home.
“Our landlords say we have to pay rent and late fees and every day it is going up,” Fuentes said. “We are paying rent for somewhere we can’t live in. They said ‘you aren’t the only ones in this situation’, but what are we supposed to do? We don’t have any money. We don’t have anything.” 
An acute housing crisis is starting to grip thousands of other families in south-east Texas as the floodwaters ebb away, with a death toll put at 60 on Monday. More than 180,000 houses in the Houston area have been badly damaged, with only a fraction of occupants owning any flood insurance. And under Texas law, rent must still be paid on damaged dwellings, unless they are deemed completely uninhabitable.
A spokeswoman for the city of Houston’s housing department said city officials “are aware these problems exist” but said that state law deals with the situation. She said the city was still assessing the total number of people in need of housing assistance.
Under the Texas property code, if a rental premises is “totally unusable” due to an external disaster then either the landlord or tenant can terminate the lease through written notice. But if the property is “partially unusable” because of a disaster, a tenant may only get a reduction in rent determined by a county or district court.
“There are a lot of property owners who aren’t conscious of what has gone on; they are being rude and kicking people out,” said Isela Bezada, an unemployed woman who lived with 10 family members in a Houston house until her landlord took her to court to evict her after the hurricane hit.

Bezada, like Fuentes, has had almost every area of her life touched by the flood. Her relatives, who work in home renovations, have little opportunity to bring in money until the full gutting of sodden houses – piles of torn up carpet, broken chairs and children’s toys have become a common adornment to the front of Houston homes – and she worries about other family members stranded in Port Arthur by a flooded highway.

“There are people who have been hit really badly by these floods,” Bezada said. “We are all human beings. We all deserve help.”
A sense of maudlin uncertainty hangs over many people who now depend on shelters and food distribution centers where once they had a stable home life. At the St Juan Diego Catholic Church in Pasadena, hundreds of people rifle through huge piles of donated clothing while tamales and pupusas are cooked outside for the hungry crowd. A sign inside the donation center, in Spanish, informs families they can only take one package of bottled water each. 
Trucks, bringing donations of baby food, salads, blankets and other assortments, pull up at the center several times a day, stocked by well wishers as far away as Ohio. Volunteers report that more and more displaced people are showing up, more than a week after Hurricane Harvey hit, as they struggle to deal with their new circumstances.
“A lot of the people here have lost everything,” said Ernest Paredes, an organizer of the center. “I don’t know what the city is doing but there is a concern that people living in apartments are still being charged and that needs to be looked into. If they are getting help, they shouldn’t be charged.” 
More than half a million people have applied for Fema help, with $33.6m already approved for housing assistance, which includes rent subsidies. Nearly 15,000 survivors have been put up by Fema in hotels and motels. A contractor has been asked by Fema to produce at least 4,500 pre-fabricated houses for displaced families.

But further help is needed, as Houston mayor Sylvester Turner stressed on Sunday, when he was asked on NBC what his priority areas were. “Housing, housing, housing,” Turner replied. The mayor has asked Donald Trump for more federal help to help repair homes but even that expanded initiative would only cover 35,000 dwellings.
With such demands on Fema help, there are inevitable frustrations over delays over assistance that may stretch for weeks or even longer. Erica Hall, who lived next to the Brays bayou in west Houston until the waterway swelled into her first floor apartment, has been ensconced on camp beds in a Red Cross-run shelter for the past week with her three children, all aged under four.
Confronted by knee-high sewage, Hall took her children onto the roof of a nearby car port, where they were plucked by the US coast guard, which dangled a basket on a rope for the family to climb into. Hall had never been in any sort of aircraft before. . Photograph: Tannen Maury/EPA
“I’ve never experienced being in an airplane or helicopter so I was terrified, I just closed my eyes,” she said. “The kids weren’t scared, they just said ‘ooh look at the water!’”
With no flood insurance, Hall is now depending on Fema. She may be in the shelter another week while she waits, maybe longer.

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