VICTORIA — The state of Texas has been disbursing $5 billion in federal dollars to help repair homes, businesses and infrastructure damaged in Hurricane Harvey in August 2017.
Ruth Ortiz will get none of it. She and her lawyers say the Harvey recovery has discriminated against flood victims like her: renters.
Ortiz, 36, was renting a two-story home in Victoria when Harvey made landfall 65 miles to the south. High winds blew out the windows as rainwater poured in, ruining her furniture. She lost just about everything, and two years later, she is still struggling, moving from place to place, paying off her credit-card debt and caring for her 14-year-old son, who has a brain tumor, all on her dental assistant’s salary.
She received some immediate federal assistance in the weeks following Harvey — nearly $2,400 total to regain her footing after surviving the worst rainstorm in U.S. history. It was all the recovery money she received.
“I just felt left behind,” Ortiz said. “Knowing that there’s help out there, it’s just sad.”
After floods, hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters, government resources, public attention and news media coverage often focus on homeowners. The tally of a disaster’s destruction is measured largely in terms of the number of deaths and the number of homes lost.
The aftermath of Harvey has been no different. Tenants who were forced out of the damaged apartments and homes they had been renting are still struggling with the financial, emotional, physical and logistical chaos unleashed by Harvey.
Many of these tenants are low-income Texans who are black or Hispanic, and who were living in some of the most vulnerable locations at the time, in low-lying areas prone to flooding and in poorly maintained buildings. They were often at the mercy of their landlords, lacked renter’s insurance and had difficulty tapping into and navigating their way through local, state and federal agencies and resources.
Allegations that the government favors homeowners and discriminates against low-income renters of color were the subject of a lawsuit filed Friday in federal court in Corpus Christi, Texas. The suit accuses officials with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the state General Land Office of ignoring the needs of renters in the Harvey recovery, and of steering the $5 billion in recovery programs to homeowners, developers and landlords.
The actions by state and federal officials also have a discriminatory effect, the suit claims. The vast majority of tenants in the counties hit by Harvey are black and Hispanic, while the majority of homeowners are white. The discriminatory policies have made it harder for black and Hispanic renters to rebuild their lives post-Harvey, while making it easier for white homeowners, the suit claims.
Renters who survived Harvey across the state lost their jobs, moved into new apartments with higher rents or lived in hotels, their cars or with relatives. Some found cheaper, more far-flung residences, and at least one woman was only able to afford her apartment by keeping it virtually empty, with little to no furniture and a mattress on the floor.
Brenda Jones, whose rental home in the bay front town of Aransas Pass was damaged during Harvey and who lived in her car for a time, had to move so far from her church that she stopped attending services there. Vanessa Wharton, a Harvey-affected renter in Corpus Christi who hears from debt collectors after she broke a lease to leave an unsafe apartment, has overdue bills and expenses, in part because she pays $100 more in rent than she did before Harvey.
Wharton’s payments on her rent-to-own refrigerator illustrate the disparities between renters and homeowners in disaster recovery, advocates for low-income tenants said. The multitude of post-Harvey assistance includes an appliance reimbursement program administered by the state and financed by the federal government — but it is only available to homeowners, not to renters.
Ortiz, Jones and Wharton are plaintiffs in the suit filed Friday.
“We do see jurisdictions where it looks very clear that homeowners are getting preferential treatment,” said Marion Mollegen McFadden, who ran a disaster-recovery grant program at HUD during the Obama administration and who is now senior vice president for public policy at the nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners.
“In some ways, it is a blind spot that the government has, except that it’s a blind spot that civil-rights advocates and others have brought a bright light to over the years in multiple recoveries.”
Rachel Zummo, a lawyer for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, a nonprofit group that filed the lawsuit and is representing the tenants along with the law firm of Daniel & Beshara, said: “Renters just don’t have the same access to recovery resources that homeowners do. They are still struggling to recover from the setbacks the disaster caused.”
The case is similar to one in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Civil rights groups filed a complaint with HUD in 2013, accusing New Jersey officials of discriminating against low-income and minority Sandy victims, including renters, in its state plan for distributing federal recovery dollars. The groups, including the Fair Share Housing Center, reached a settlement in 2014 that required New Jersey to increase the resources available to low-income renters, including establishing a $15 million pool for immediate help to displaced tenants. The difference with the Texas case is that it is not an administrative complaint filed with HUD but a federal lawsuit against the agency.
The $5 billion in Harvey-related recovery programs at the heart of the Texas lawsuit are federally financed but state administered.
The programs were proposed and are being overseen by the Texas General Land Office, and were approved by HUD. Federal disaster aid happens in stages, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency handling much of the immediate, temporary assistance and HUD supplying much of the long-term rebuilding money through its disaster recovery Community Development Block Grants.
HUD and the General Land Office did not respond to requests for comment.
The lawsuit does not focus on federal aid from FEMA or on the HUD recovery money that was earmarked for Houston or Houston’s Harris County. The tenants in the lawsuit live outside Houston in the smaller cities and towns of Rockport, where Harvey made landfall; Corpus Christi; Victoria; and Aransas Pass.
The state action plan, which details how the $5 billion will be spent, bars nonhomeowners from receiving direct financial assistance while allowing direct aid to homeowners, the lawyers for renters said. The state plan includes programs that allow local governments to offer buyouts to homeowners and that provide reimbursements to homeowners for out-of-pocket repair expenses. The so-called Affordable Rental Housing program in the state plan helps developers and local governments repair or build new housing stock or infrastructure.
The fair-housing lawsuit was filed against HUD and its secretary, Ben Carson, as well as the General Land Office and the Texas land commissioner, George P. Bush. It seeks a judgment declaring that the plaintiffs’ federal civil rights were violated and a permanent injunction requiring officials to submit an action plan that includes direct assistance to renters.
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The case follows criticism last year that Carson and HUD officials were weakening the agency’s fair housing division and attempting to scale back efforts to enforce fair-housing laws, a policy shift confirmed by current and former HUD officials but denied by Carson.
John Henneberger, an expert in disaster-recovery housing and co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, said his group and others had warned the state and HUD for months that the plan for the $5 billion excluded direct aid to renters, and would finance new apartment buildings with so-called affordable rents that many low-income Texans could not afford.
“We jumped up and down and hollered, both to the state and to HUD, and nobody did anything about it,” Henneberger said. “Government discounts and does not treat people of color equitably, and it doesn’t treat poor people the way it treats people with more means, and that’s just a universal truth that I’ve seen in over 40 years of housing programs in this state.”