Unsafe homes keep flooding, federal agency keeps paying
When a deadly rainstorm unloaded on Houston in 2016, Sharobin White’s apartment complex flooded in up to 6 feet of water. She sent her toddler and 6-year-old to safety on an air mattress, but her family lost nearly everything, including their car.
When Hurricane Harvey hit the next year, it happened all over again: Families rushed to evacuate, and White’s car, a used Chevrolet she bought after the last flood, was destroyed.
“It’s not safe,” said White, now 29. “Everybody gets to panicking when it rains. You can’t live like that.”
But White and many of her neighbors cannot afford to leave. They are among hundreds of thousands of Americans – an estimated 450,000 households from New York to Miami to Phoenix – who live in governmentsubsidized housing that is at serious risk of flooding, a danger that is becoming increasingly urgent in the era of climate change.
Global warming has been linked to heavier rainfall, making recordbreaking flooding more likely. But the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees some of the at-risk properties, does not have a universal policy against paying for housing in a designated flood zone.
There may be good reason for that: Much of the nation’s affordable housing stock was built before climate change was well-understood, and many properties sit in flood zones. So the government continues to pay – a strategy that keeps a roof over families’ heads but potentially leaves them in harm’s way.
Nowhere is that tension more acute than in Houston, where residents of the nation’s fourth-largest city have been pounded by severe storms in recent years – and where HUD is facing a lawsuit brought by White and a dozen of her neighbors. The residents say they are trapped in a dangerous area because their housing vouchers can be used only at that apartment complex, which is in a flood-prone area next to a bayou.
The complex, Arbor Court Apartments, which is run by a private landlord that contracts with HUD, has been in a floodplain since 1985 and under HUD’s oversight since at least 1991, according to the lawsuit, filed in federal court last year.
After the 2016 flood, HUD renewed its contract with the owner, for about $1.6 million a year. Only a year later, Hurricane Harvey wiped out the first floor, leaving many families displaced and others complaining of major problems, including mold.
“Arbor Court is not a close question,” said Michael M. Daniel, a civil rights lawyer whose firm has worked with Lone Star Legal Aid and affordablehousing group Texas Housers on behalf of the residents. “How in the world it hasn’t flunked the ‘decent, safe and sanitary’ test – it’s beyond belief.”
Kenneth B. Chaiken, a lawyer for Arbor Court, said his client was a “terrific owner” who was deeply committed to offering affordable housing to families who need it. And he said the property’s location in a floodplain alone did not make it unsafe.
“People can safely live there,” he said. While families may occasionally suffer damage or displacement in an unusual storm, he said, “those are all the same risks that everybody else everywhere in Houston that suffered flooding experienced.”
HUD, citing the dire shortage of rental homes for extremely low-income families, says its goal is to preserve affordable housing whenever possible.
Nationwide, about 450,000 governmentsubsidized households – about 8 to 9 percent – are in floodplains, according to a 2017 report by the Furman Center at New York University.
Greens Bayou in Houston runs past the Arbor Court Apartments, which were damaged by Hurricane Harvey.