Sixteen months later, it is undeniable renters are still roiling in Hurricane Harvey’s wake.
The problem exists everywhere Harvey hit along coastal Texas, but it is particularly acute in Victoria, which suffered from an affordable housing crisis even before the storm. Because the city’s rents had outpaced many renters’ income before Harvey, low- and middle-income residents had no options after the hurricane made unlivable a third of Victoria’s apartments.
Those damaged apartments are starting to reopen now after the painfully slow insurance process but at higher prices than before. Landlords have good reason for higher prices – many of the rebuilt apartments are like new now. In some cases, the apartments are even better than before.
The catch is most renters don’t have any more money to spend. The average price of a two-bedroom apartment in Victoria has soared 34 percent during the past decade to $960 a month, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. However, personal income in Victoria rose only 22 percent during that same time period.
The state’s Harvey recovery plan takes none of this into account. In fact, advocates fear the state actually will worsen renters’ plight.
After Harvey, the state of Texas reserved the vast majority of federal recovery dollars for homeowners – not renters. Of $2.2 billion of federal grant money earmarked to repair damaged housing in areas outside of Houston, about $450 million – about 20 percent – is targeted for rentals. Although the government definitely should help homeowners recover, a key goal of any recovery plan should be to keep low-income residents on the path toward realizing the American dream, not send them spiraling in the opposite direction.
The state’s program also could hurt tenants renting from landlords with fewer properties, who generally don’t have experience putting together competitive — and often complicated — applications for grant money, according to advocates. Meanwhile, only projects with more than eight units qualify for funding at all, which means landlords who rent just a couple of mobile homes, single-family homes or duplexes are simply out of luck.
Landlords with only one or a few units represent a significant portion of Victoria’s rental market. They need attention in the state’s recovery plan. As small business owners these landlords are part of the country’s backbone. They are the key to rebuilding the city’s rental stock.
Almost completely forgotten in the recovery plan are the poor. In Victoria, 42 percent of renters who applied for Federal Emergency Management Agency help after Harvey qualified as “extremely low income.” That threshold is alarmingly low: a family of four making less than $25,100 per year.
Most landlords are ethical, upstanding citizens. Unfortunately, the poor are the most vulnerable – the rental units owned by anonymous, out-of-town companies that rent out by the week and evict tenants without following proper eviction rules.
If the Harvey recovery plan doesn’t better address renters, then the state could face legal challenges, too.
Kate Rainey, of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, said the group was considering litigation against the General Land Office “alleging that its lack of focus on renters is discriminatory because renters are likely to be more African-American and Hispanic compared to homeowners, which are more white.”
Lawsuits are a last resort with few winners. The state needs to open its eyes before that happens and truly see those “Hidden in Plain Sight,” the name of the Victoria Advocate’s series on the plight of those forgotten after Harvey.
For many reasons, Texas needs to reprioritize its recovery plan, not the least of which may be found in Proverbs 28:27: “Whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse.”