Developers Prey on Harvey’s Forgotten Survivors

Juanita Hall’s mother passed away shortly before Hurricane Harvey hit her home. This home had been in her family for generations and now the home is uninhabitable, a total loss needing a complete tear down and rebuild. Three years later, the room in the house where her mother passed away is full of black mold. Like countless other survivors of Hurricane Harvey, Juanita Hall’s home still hasn’t been repaired or rebuilt.

Juanita Hall is part of the Harvey Forgotten Survivors Caucus. This caucus is facilitated by West Street Recovery and Texas Housers. Comprised of about 15 members, this group meets regularly to navigate obstacles to keep their homes and avoid displacement. West Street Recovery and Texas Housers works with the Harvey Forgotten Survivors Caucus to get better treatment and to get safe and sanitary solutions from the government more quickly than they’re getting. Going into second wave of COVID, these folks are still living in dangerous housing conditions.

“People in the Caucus are getting some better results than people not in the group because they are actively organizing,” Ben Hirsh, strategic partnerships manager from West Street Recovery, said.

“What happens to the typical poor, Black or Brown person that isn’t going to a weekly meeting? That aren’t organizing? For most people, it’s a complete mystery on how to get help.”

How Developers are Engaging with the Caucus

Every member of the Harvey Forgotten Survivors Caucus dealt with the city’s Harvey Homeowner Assistance Program (HoAP) before it was abruptly removed and are now dealing with General Land Office (GLO). Throughout this process of continually running into dead ends with the program, not having their home, and financial burdens, these caucus members also have to deal with developers and investors. From a marketing standpoint, the victims of Hurricane Harvey are vulnerable, tired, and financially stretched thin which makes them perfect opportunities to buy up their house/property and to then gentrify for profit. The city, state, and federal government won’t care because we live in an oligarchy.

Given that we live in a capitalist system where we consistently put profit before people, it’s easy to see how failing these Houstonians would conveniently leave them in a vulnerable position to be pressured into selling their homes to developers and investors for profit. You can try to figure out who is to blame, but honestly it’s political theater to distract from the fact that our system — city, state, and federal — will not prioritize the working poor or working class. The city can’t be bothered to enact an eviction moratorium during a pandemic let alone provide much needed assistance for a hurricane that many have not recovered from three years later.

RELATED: Houston Eviction Solidarity Network

According to a Houston Chronicle article from 2018, 5,500 flooded homes were bought by investors looking to develop and turn a profit in less than a year from when Harvey hit. Below is an excerpt from the article:

Small and mid-sized private companies have dominated the post-Harvey market so far, some sending executives in from California, Colorado and Las Vegas. But now institutional funds, which woo wealthy investors with promises of double-digit returns, are dipping their toes in the water, too.

A California firm, B&P Investment Group, is looking to spend $400 million, targeting homes flooded by the release of water from northwest Houston’s Addicks and Barker reservoirs.

“Four hundred million is a lot of money,” said Ryan Pina, president of the Orange County-based B&P. “We’re looking to go in and essentially rehab the city of Houston, bit by bit.”

Notice how the word “rehab” in the executive’s quote is double-speak. Rehabbing the city would mean taking care of the community already there, not scooping up homes from financially strained climate refugees for profit. Read the whole Houston Chronicle article, here.

I surveyed the Harvey Forgotten Survivors Caucus using Google Forms to assess how developers were engaging with them during this time. Out of 15 members of the caucus, 10 responded. Below are the results on how developers are engaging with them via typical marketing tactics.

In the open-ended portion of the survey, one Harvey survivor said this about the property vulture phone calls:

They call our landline starting at 8am until 9pm. One time they called at 7:15am. Some are very obnoxious others can get argumentative. So, I started to give them outrages prices on our property in hopes they would stop calling.

It didn’t work and they became even ruder. Now the have gotten hold of our cell numbers and call plus send text messages. I block their numbers but some they get around it. I have finally turned to just taking the landline off the hook.

Note: 30% of respondents say they receive 15+ developer type mailers weekly.

Note: 40% of respondents receive 10 or more cash offers for their property on a weekly basis.

Way too Much Stress to Deal With Developers

Juanita Hall submitted an application in 2017 to HoAP, while she was grieving from her mother’s loss a few weeks before the storm hit. With an insane 20-year lien on the house, the HoAP would cover storage fees, temporary housing, and rebuilding her home. Hall waited to get temporary housing and information on how to get her storage fees covered. When would these expenses be covered? HoAP said they would cover these costs when construction began, but they would not offer Hall any indication of when said construction would happen. It has been three years.

No one has contacted me and that’s the thing. The last contact I got was from the hazard inspector. The inspector didn’t end up inspecting the house; he was there for 20 minutes instead of the 2–4 hours.

His paperwork said I needed a repair, not a full tear down, so when he came to inspect it he could see how the house really was.

I had to call and yell at a city employee to correct the paperwork — my house needs a full tear down, it’s still sitting in black mold from Harvey.

This year, Hall was told she was two steps away from laying out the construction — she wouldn’t get compensated for the last three years of expenses, but finally, some relief because the disabilities check can only stretch so far. Right when Hall was finally beginning the process of laying out construction, the city removed HoAP and told Hall to complete the process with the state’s GLO. That would be great, except Hall will not be completing the process, no — she has to start from scratch.

We as Black Americans fought for our voting rights, and we go around casting our votes for these elected officials and they promise they’ll fight for us. And they don’t.

Mayor Turner, three months ago, promised me a tear down, a new home, so that’s what I’m looking for.

Hall was unsure who to believe because she received an email stating the city would turn over her paperwork from HoAP to GLO, but she found out that the city hasn’t transferred her paperwork yet. According to Hirsch from West Street Recovery, the city is moving about 25 files a day right now, and there’s no transparency on how the files are being prioritized.

Any applicant trying to get their house back in living conditions, trying to get answers, is faced with a myriad of Comcast-like communications when dealing with the “housing authority” the neoliberal establishment put in place. The city departments who are supposed to have the answers these last three years only gave Hall more questions, and now Hall is starting the process all over with the state.

During all of this, developers and investors have been calling her multiple times a day, every day. This will not stop when she starts working with the state to get her house fixed.

They [the developers] call me so much. If I have to build this house back room by room, I’ll do it. This house is not for sale. My parents worked hard to get this house. It’s a family home.

If I get home — when I get home — I’m just gonna be so happy, I’m gonna look, and I’m either gonna have a heart attack or sleep well. No, I’m going to sleep well.

When they rebuild my house, I’ll probably just sit there and look at it for a whole week.

Demands from the Caucus

If you’re wondering how you can help, contact West Street Recovery and follow them on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

You can also get in touch with Texas Housers and follow them on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

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