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After Hurricane Harvey, Many In Houston Struggle With Apartment Rent Dilemma

Sep 2, 2017
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's the beginning of the month. And for a lot of people, that means rent and mortgage payments are due. And that's a big problem in Houston, where thousands of apartments and homes are too damaged to live in. And many hurricane victims don't have the money to make the payments anyway. As Houston dries out, NPR's Greg Allen has this report on Houston's housing challenge.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Michelle Pawelek is with the Houston Apartment Association, a trade group of landlords that represents some 90 percent of the multi-family rental units in Houston.

MICHELLE PAWELEK: The damage is extensive.

ALLEN: Initial reports suggest as many as a sixth of the 600,000 rental units owned by the group's members have some damage.

PAWELEK: We've had properties that just have minor damage, window leaks, roof leaks. We have a lot of properties that have anywhere from an inch to seven feet of water in the first floor.

ALLEN: That leaves many renters with an apparent dilemma. Your apartment was flooded. You're looking for a place to stay, and your landlord wants the rent that was due the beginning of the month. Do you pay? Here's what renter Whitlee Hurd told NPR's Rebecca Herscher this week after her apartment flooded.

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WHITLEE HURD: Hell no. Excuse my language. I don't know if you can cuss. Hell no. For what? No. Why should I have to pay for them?

ALLEN: But Hurd and other renters even, those whose apartments were damaged and may even be uninhabitable, do have to pay the rent. Fred Fuchs is an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.

FRED FUCHS: Under Texas law, they remain legally liable for the rent.

ALLEN: If the apartment is uninhabitable, Fuchs says tenants can terminate their leases after they notify their landlords in writing. If the rental unit is damaged, tenants have to pay but can try to negotiate a lower rent. Michelle Pawelek with the Houston Apartment Association says that's already happening.

PAWELEK: Most owners are doing everything they can to accommodate residents whose apartments are flooded, but individual owners and renters are working out those situations based on what level of damage they have received in their unit.

ALLEN: Fortunately for people affected by Harvey, help is available. FEMA says it's already approved more than $79 million in assistance to residents and business owners. The payments include money for temporary housing and two months of rental assistance. Mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have also announced help for homeowners in homes where they back the mortgages, more than half of those nationwide. Fannie and Freddie have told servicers to give homeowners a 90-day cushion if they're late with mortgage payments and also suspend foreclosures and evictions for 90 days. Freddie Mac Vice President Yvette Gilmore says the agencies offered similar relief to homeowners after Hurricane Sandy and Katrina.

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YVETTE GILMORE: Most properties will need to be inspected. But in the meantime, we are most concerned that borrowers be given the opportunity to get a breather.

ALLEN: Housing experts say as Houston rebuilds after Harvey, it has certain advantages over New Orleans after Katrina and New York and New Jersey after Sandy. For one thing, unlike those other areas, before the disaster, Houston had a housing surplus. Ted Jones, chief economist with Stuart Title Guaranty Company, says after a building boom, Houston was left with too many apartments and a vacancy rate of eight to 12 percent.

TED JONES: I'm going to guess you probably do have 300,000 potential housing units just on the shelves here, so to speak. Now, you'd never wish for an event like this to help out an overbuilt market, but at least we have that shock absorber, that buffer to help in this circumstance.

ALLEN: As it recovers from Harvey, Jones says Houston enjoys another advantage - no zoning laws. Some critics say that very lack of zoning and planning restrictions may have contributed to the city's flooding. Jones disputes that. But one thing is clear - as rebuilding begins, contractors don't have to wait for planning and zoning approval, allowing work to proceed much more quickly. Greg Allen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.