Un­safe homes keep flood­ing, fed­eral agency keeps pay­ing

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY SARAH MERVOSH New York Times

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.

WIL­LIAM CHAM­BERS NYT

Greens Bayou in Hous­ton runs past the Ar­bor Court Apart­ments, which were dam­aged by Hur­ri­cane Har­vey.

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