Hurricane Harvey-stricken renters have been left out to dry by federal and state relief agencies, according to a Victoria County woman’s lawsuit.
Although more than $5 billion in relief has been approved for homeowners and landlords affected by Harvey, none of that assistance was available to renters.
“These policies deny plaintiffs the federal assistance to meet disaster survivors’ unmet needs solely because of their status as tenants,” states a federal lawsuit. “Meanwhile, the same policies provide opportunities for homeowner Harvey survivors to address a variety of recovery needs.”
Filed Friday in the Southern District of Texas, the lawsuit names a Victoria County woman as one of its plaintiffs.
She and three other renters who were living in Rockport, Corpus Christi and Aransas Pass when Harvey struck are seeking hurricane relief, attorney fees and changes to federal and state programs that would provide future assistance to renters.
The renters are represented by attorneys with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, a nonprofit that provides free legal services for civil rights and other cases.
They are suing the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, the Texas General Land Office and Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush.
Brittany Eck, a spokeswoman for GLO, said the office does not comment about pending litigation.
But Eck also said the office is providing $450 million for the repair and construction of affordable multifamily homes in Harvey-affected areas.
At least 65 such homes for almost 5,000 families are planned, and 28 of the projects are underway, she said.
HUD representatives did not respond to questions Monday.
The defendants have yet to file an answer to the lawsuit. They have yet to be served with the suit.
The plaintiffs are also asking for a judgment from those defendants declaring that they violated the affected renters’ constitutional and civil rights.
Plaintiff Ruth Ortiz, who moved to Victoria in 2016, found her home unsafe to live in after Harvey struck, according to her lawsuit.
Ortiz could not be reached for comment.
The next year, Harvey broke four windows at her rented two-story Victoria home and made locking the back door impossible.
“Ms. Ortiz was afraid for her family’s safety, but the landlord refused to make repairs,” her lawsuit states.
Two months after that damage was sustained, Ortiz struggled to find another affordable home to rent, and as a result, her rent went from $750 to $1,000 each month.
“The units repaired and built in the rental recovery program will not be affordable for plaintiffs, and Harvey survivors will not be given preference in renting,” the lawsuit reads.
That rent increase eventually required her to move again – this time to a home that was further away from her job, children’s school and son’s doctor.
Ortiz’s son has a brain tumor and requires specialized medical care.
According to the suit, Ortiz’s income is 36.7% of the county’s median income.
“Ms. Ortiz still suffers financially because of expenses she incurred as a result of Hurricane Harvey,” the lawsuit states.
Other plaintiffs in the suit have incomes that range from 15% to 39% of the median incomes in their counties.
The lawsuit also notes that Ortiz is Hispanic, which is important, it states, because the relief policies currently in place “cause the discriminatory effect of disadvantaging the disproportionately Hispanic and African American tenant household group as compared to the disproportionately white, non-Hispanic group of homeowners.”