West Street Recovery Ben Hirsch and Dori Grabinski August 9, 2018
The city of Houston and Harris County are preparing to receive CDGB-DR funds and direct some of them towards single family, owner-occupied home repair. In order to ensure that marginalized homeowners receive the help they need, new programs must reevaluate and improve upon the intake and eligibility requirements used by home repair agencies that were funded by the Greater Houston Community Fund and the Rebuild Texas Fund.
This brief describes the experience of seven West Street Recovery client households in Northeast Houston . Five of these families have not yet been accepted into rebuild programs. Additionally, we have included the stories of two families who have been accepted into programs to illustrate how, in some instances, case management and client advocacy can be enough to overcome these barriers. West Street Recovery has worked with 181 families in Northeast Houston since the storm to try and help them recover fully and secure a safe, mold-free, and dignified living situation. In helping families do through this process, we have identified the program requirements, social dynamics, and legal frameworks that prevent the most marginalized household from receiving assistance from the organizations who have the most capacity to help. The families described in this report are clustered in one neighborhood in Northeast Houston, but provide insight into dozens of similar neighborhoods that remain in disrepair and thousands of families who have experienced the same difficulties in trying to access assistance.
Below, the stories of these families are organized into three central themes:
1) Households who cannot receive financial aid due to deed issues,
2) Families who do not have the financial means to meet the eligibility requirements of meeting property taxes and maintaining insurance, and
3) Individuals who cannot navigate the procedural and bureaucratic processes required to access assistance.
Drawing on these stories, this report concludes with recommendations on how to craft CDGB-DR eligibility requirements in a way that allows the poorest households to participate while maintaining target efficiency and program accountability.
Families with Deed Issues
Home repair programs funded by CDGB money must be funded in a way that allows people who own their homes for all intents and purposes, but do not have the deed in their name because of various personal circumstances. West Street Recovery has two main types of clients who experience deed issues: those whose homes are in the name of a relative, whether living or deceased, and those whose deeds are held by an outside financier.
Ms Deanne Menifee
Deanne’s Kashmere Gardens home flooded with four feet of water during the storm, which caused both structural damage and a significant mold problem within the house. Although she knows it is unsafe to live in a moldy space, Deanne has not mucked her home because she has been unable to secure assistance from organizations that have the financial and technical capacity to complete a total rebuild. The main barrier that Deanne faces to getting into a rebuild program is that the deed to her home was not in her name when Harvey hit. All of the major rebuild programs require that the name of the person applying for assistance must match the name on the deed of the house; however, Deanne inherited her home from her deceased mother and lacked the financial and bureaucratic resources to legally change the deed. Lone Star Legal Aid has recently begun working with Deanne, but the process has been slow and is not yet resolved.
Deanne feels that she cannot rip out her walls to do proper mold remediation if there is no guarantee that the home will be rebuilt. After being deemed ineligible for assistance from Baker Ripley, Sheltering Arms, and Avenue CDC, Deanne tried to sanitize the home on her own by cutting holes in the walls to allow them to breathe and spraying fungicide on the beams. West Street Recovery has performed small repairs in her bathroom and the room where she sleeps, but the rest of the house remains infested with active mold which cannot be eradicated without the prospect of a total rebuild.
Morris Harris lives with his partner and their daughter in a home between his mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, and his brother who often works out of town. Morris has lived in the home for a decade and been responsible for upkeep and paying property taxes for the last six years. Despite this, the deed of the home is jointly in the name of his elderly Mother and his niece, who has never actually lived in the home and does not live in Houston. Even though Morris pays the property taxes and insurance and lives in the home full-time, FEMA considers Morris’s mother to be the owner because her name is on the deed. Since his mother received a FEMA payout for the home she actually lives in, Morris was deemed ineligible for any FEMA money. Without FEMA, the family cannot fund their own repairs, and moreover, the problems they have with
their deed also mean that they cannot be accepted into any of the charitable rebuilding programs.
Mr and Ms Cuellar
Jessie Cuellar purchased a home in Trinity Gardens from a seller who financed it himself. Following the contract the seller wrote, the deed to the home will not be transfered into the Cuellar’s name until the entire debt on the house is paid off. The fact that the deed is not in the residents name means that Jessie is not eligible for repairs and none of the major repair agencies can make an exception to this rule. Beyond this, the and the family is paying 11% interest. This means that over the course of the loan they will pay almost twice the value of the home. One feasible solution the city could pursue, or enable through a third party would be to lend the family money at a more fair interest rate. There are hundreds of families in Houston with seller financed rent to own homes who cannot access repair assistance but are legally responsible for upkeep in their homes This situation and possible solutions to it should be considered carefully as the city designs its home repair programs.
Families with Financial Constraints
While Home repair programs target poor families, there are actually many program parameters that prohibit the poorest homeowners from receiving assistance. To qualify for many home repair programs, households have to demonstrate that they can afford flood insurance. Similarly, program often require that applicants must be up-to-date on their property taxes or on a scheduled payment plan. Both of these requirements are reasonable from the perspective of the NGOs carrying out the work; fixing a home only to have it be repossessed or destroyed should be avoided at all costs. However, both of these requirements can ignore the financial circumstances of families who are most in need of rebuilds but cannot maintain such payments. Another problem is that even when low-income homeowners are a pproved for help, agencies are often only permitted to restore their homes to “pre-storm” conditions. Many low-income families cannot afford routine maintenance on their homes which is what makes them so vulnerable to storm damage in the first place, so pre-storm conditions are an inadequate benchmark for total recovery.
Mr Doucette lives with his adult son in the northern section of the Lakewood neighborhood and his home was flooded with over five feet of water and stayed inundated for three days. West Street Recovery provided cash assistance to the son Waylon, and connected the family to small grassroots teams of volunteers working on rebuilding homes. So far, they have been able to muck selected parts of the home and have completed small repairs. However, due to financial constraints on the family the home was in need of some repairs before the storm, and they have not made any significant progress in fully recovering, nevermind addressing long term deficiencies.
The first reason that the Doucette’s have not received assistance is because they are behind on property taxes. The market value of Mr Doucette’s home is only $31,570. Despite this he owes almost a fifth of this in property taxes. Mr Doucette is aware that property taxes can be put onto a payment plan but no information was supplied to him by case management organization on how to do that. Furthermore, if he does move to a payment plan he will face severe penalties if he misses a payment. In addition, to property taxes Mr Doucette is facing difficulties in proving his income through tax returns. He does not use an online system for taxes and instead relies on a seasonal business that does not have a physical address except during tax season. The same financial realities, underemployment, low wages, and old age, which prohibit Mr Doucette from paying off his taxes means he is unable to prove he has the means to pay for flood insurance.
Odis is an elderly resident living in the eastern section of the lakewood neighborhood. His home was flooded with 3 feet of water but Odis’ son is fairly handy and was able to muck out damaged materials with the help of friends. However, the water made the home’s electrical system unsafe, and therefor made family led repairs impossible. Over the years Odis had fallen behind on his property taxes, and owed almost $9,000. In initial attempts Odis was denied, but it was only when a West Street case manager contacted ST Bernard Project who were orchestrating his rebuild that he learned that it was his property taxes that prevented his acceptance. Working with Odis and the County, we put the family on a payment plan and helped with the first installment. After this small barrier was removed Odis was successfully entered into the SBP rebuild program and will get to move into his safe and mold free home by mid August. This case shows that sometimes small interventions by caring navigators can have huge material benefits for families. We urge the city to scale this kind of effort with CDGB funds.
Families who Face Bureaucratic Barriers
Many families actually are eligible for rebuild programs, but are discouraged from applying because they find the process to be too complicated and time-consuming. Based on insights from our case management team, we believe that the application process is far more complicated than necessary. The creation of the Harvey Home Connect system was a step in the right direction, but even after filling out their information on this website, residents often have to take many other steps to receive assistance because of bureaucratic inefficiencies. In addition, the city must recognize that some residents, especially people of color, have been denied services for years, or have not been given the opportunity to apply for them. For some households, there is a humiliating aspect to producing documentation, answering questions, and visiting offices to tell their stories again and again. These emotional dynamics in tandem with the actual complexity of the application process must be considered in order to make the application process for future programs more accessible.
Victoria Moreno lives in the Lakewood neighborhood with her adult son and his children. Her home was flooded with four feet of water. While Harvey was difficult for everyone in NE Houston, Ms Moreno suffers from hypertension and has some mental health issues. Ms Moreno received only seven thousand dollars from FEMA, and unsuccessfully appealed this decision but has only been able to repair parts of her home with funds available.
Ms Moreno has not been been accepted to any of the major rebuilding programs because, she is not able to produce all of the necessary tax documents. Collecting the required tax documents is difficult because while Ms Moreno is married, she is separated and not on
speaking terms with her husband. The husband also has limited income, and would be program eligible but is unwilling to provide his former partner, or a rebuilding organization his tax documents. This shows that the city should provide reasonable accommodation for households with atypical family structures.
Howard Higgins is an elderly man with low levels of physical mobility, no internet access in his home, and who is socially isolated. His wife passed only a few years ago. He lives in Lakewood and is very knowledgeable about his home but lacks the physical capacity or funds to fix it himself. Howard, was aware of FEMA, but was totally unfamiliar with any of the charitable rebuild programs that existed. West Street recovery met Howard in December and found him still living in a home with no materials removed, no FEMA money awarded and no clue of how to move forward. Together, Howard and West Street, appealed his FEMA denial, mucked out his entire house, and did a temporary repair of his bedroom and living room. To get completely rebuilt though Howard needed help from BuildAid. But, the application was very difficult for him. WSR staff used mobile hotspots to connect him to the internet, and had to call a number of relatives to access all of the documents needed to be accepted. With assistance though Howard did receive aid and his home will be rebuilt in a way that is more accommodating to his limited mobility
West Street Recovery believes that they work we have done has helped families access rebuilding assistance and can be replicated in the way CDGB-DR monies are spent. But, to achieve truly equitable outcomes the city will also have to adopt eligibility requirements that are more inclusive and systematically remove the program requirements that prevent the most marginalized families access rebuilding aid.
Use Application Navigators to assist families until construction has begun
- Households who receive individualized assistance are better able to navigate the complexity of applications and feel emotionally supported throughout the process.
Assist families with Deed transfers
- All families who are eligible except the status of their deed should be connected to lawyers who can transfer the deed into their name at no cost.
- Allowances should be made for situations when multiple owners from the same family.
- The city should investigate innovative strategies to help families access credit and home ownership assistance that enables them to access aid
Use CDGB-DR funds for five years of flood insurance coverage
- Maintaining flood insurance as a condition of assistance prohibits the poorest homeowners from receiving assistance.
- When homes are repaired by CDGB-DR funds additional funds should be set aside to fund flood insurance.
Address Damage caused by “deferred maintenance”
- Many families have been denied assistance from FEMA due to deferred maintenance, or home repair agency parameters prohibit them from improvements beyond pre-storm conditions
- Leaving home owners in the condition they were before the storm leaves them in a state of vulnerability which is why their home was so damaged in the first place.
- CDGB funds create an opportunity to improve the housing stock in low income neighborhoods, and anchor neighborhood
Adopt intake Guidelines that accommodate irregular family structures
- Households with absent members, multiple nuclear families cohabiting, or atypical family structure should be given special consideration in eligibility requirements
Reduce number of documents needed to prove eligibility
- The family should not be required to produce any document the city can source directly.
- Program requirements should be focused on demonstrating eligibility with the fewest documents needed as possible