After the Flood, What’s Next for Vulnerable Residents?

Flooding in 2016 in the Greenspoint area raised questions about the fate of apartment complexes vulnerable to future flooding. Courtesy North Houston District Drainage Evaluation Report.

The flood wasn’t exactly a surprise. But it didn’t happen the way many expected.

“We were kind of literally scratching our heads. There were some complexes we had no idea would be impacted and they were and there were some, we thought they would flood and they didn’t,” said Robert Fiederlein, vice president of strategic planning and development for the North Houston District.

“I’m not sure floods ever go exactly as people would expect,” he said.

In her ground-floor, Greenspoint apartment, Jelinda Strange taps her painted pink fingernails along the white wall, several inches from the floor. “You can see where the water was,” she says. Strange, 21, was one of the tenants displaced after the flooding that hit overnight and in the early morning of April 18, 2016. More than a year later, in a renovated apartment in the same complex, the flood is still on her mind. “Where the line is,” she says, pointing to a faint change in color just beneath the coat of paint, “that’s where the water was.”

There was a moment, after the water filled her old unit in the Arbor Court apartments early that Monday morning, after she had climbed on top of her kitchen counters with her days-old baby in her arms, that Strange thought maybe they would die in there. She was afraid of the water, unable to swim, and by the time she woke up, it was already so high in her apartment that she didn’t think she could make it outside. She made it to the kitchen, put her baby inside a cabinet high off the ground and she prayed.

“God if you’re going to take us, just take us,” she said.

“I was just screaming and praying at the same time.”

Now, Strange says she’d rather see the complex torn down. A federally subsidized complex for low-income families, the Arbor Court apartments are one of a cluster of old apartment buildings just south of Greens Road that provide affordable rents. Situated in a bend of Greens Bayou, they’re also vulnerable to flooding. Strange and hundreds of others were rescued that night. Her belongings were not. She spent three weeks staying with friends and in emergency shelters before being able to move back in to another redone unit.

“I’d rather it be a pond if it’s going to constantly flood,” said Strange.

Greenspoint wasn’t the only Houston area hit in the fatal floods more than a year ago, but it was among the hardest hit. The storm, that came in two bursts several hours apart starting just after midnight, overwhelmed the storm-water system, forcing water over the banks of the bayou as it flowed down a slight slope toward Arbor Court and the 16 other apartment complexes hit that night.

Now the North Houston District, study in hand, hopes a buyout will help ease the area’s problems in the future. What it means for the families potentially affected is still unclear.

Scenes from the 2016 flooding in Greenspoint. Courtesy North Houston District Drainage Evaluation Report.

Hundreds of people were displaced due to flooding. Courtesy North Houston District Drainage Evaluation Report.

The study, by the engineering and planning firm Lockwood Andrews and Newnam, provided a more detailed level analysis than previously available, looking at how the water levels rose in the bayou as well as where the water traveled over land for the duration of the storm. But it largely confirmed what many in the area knew, many of the properties are vulnerable to flooding. Arbor Court, for example, sits, not just inside the 100-year floodplain, which shows which areas have a 1 percent chance of flooding annually, but inside the more regulated floodway that has an even greater risk of flooding. That makes the story of Arbor Court all the more frustrating for the low-income tenants who live there.

Though floodplains evolve, when the Arbor Court complex, built in 1978, was later approved for a federal Housing Assistance Program contract that would allow the federal government to help cover a portion of the tenants’ rents at the private complex, it was already determined to be inside the floodplain.

While things like the physical condition of a property factor into the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s decision to extend or renew a HAP contract, being inside a floodplain does not, according to Patricia Campbell, a spokeswoman with HUD. In the case of Arbor Court, the contract was most recently renewed in September 2016 and expires in August 2036. It’s up to local authorities, said Campbell, to determine whether a floodplain designation makes a property unfit for such a contract. The property owner did not respond to questions emailed to him.

The North Houston District is also looking to buyout the nearby Biscayne at City View apartments, also in the floodway, converting both properties into detention basins doubling as park space at an estimated cost of $10 million to $13 million. The city itself would receive the funding and conduct the buyout and though the funding and details have to be worked out, the city’s housing department says relocation services are part of the conversation, according to Jocklynn Keville, the public information officer with the department. The District says the plan would work in tandem with channel improvements that were already in the works thanks to the Harris County Flood Control District when the flood hit last year. But it recognizes that those won’t be enough. When the study ran the models of the flooding assuming the two large detention basins currently under construction upstream were completed, they still weren’t enough to eliminate the flooding completely.

“We have 3,500 apartment units in the floodway,” said Greg Simpson, president of the North Houston District. “We would like to get as many of those people out of harm’s way as possible. A lot of those people that suffered through the flood are people that don’t have a lot of capacity to absorb events like that in their lives.”

“We have 3,500 apartment units in the floodway,” said Greg Simpson, president of the North Houston District. Courtesy North Houston District Drainage Evaluation Report.

The thinking goes, buyouts and upgraded storm-water infrastructure, coupled with the two detention basins already in the works, will all mitigate the kind of flooding seen in 2016. “Theoretically,” said Fiederlein of the package of improvements, “you make it safer for those that remain. In the end it will come down to what ultimately gets funded and then done.”

The North Houston District hopes to receive a share of funding through the county’s designated $61 million in federal flood recovery money to put toward the buyouts as well as drainage improvements. If the federal Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funds do go toward a buyout, said Campbell, “property relocation assistance would be required,” with responsibility falling “to the entity receiving the CDBG funds.”

Campbell said, as of late June, HUD had not been contacted by any of the parties involved about the potential buyout. Harris County is expected to decide on the distribution of recovery funds this summer.

And the District, along with the city’s housing department and chief resilience officer said there was no specific plan in place to relocate anyone displaced by buyouts though talks were in the works. The District pointed to a low-income housing tax credit project awaiting state approval, the Oasis on Ella, that could provide roughly 100 affordable units in the area, according to the project’s application. The state’s housing department is expected to decide which projects will receive the tax credit in July.

But that would not replace the total number of units lost in potential buyouts.

Explaining why Arbor Court kept getting renewed, despite being a known flood risk, Campbell said, “We’d like to emphasize that affordable housing in Houston is at a premium. There are currently more than 30,000 persons on the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher waiting list at the Houston Housing Authority. The last time they opened the waiting list for applications, more than 68,000 persons applied. The persons we assist are often very low-income, elderly and disabled. Every unit counts.”

Bishop Shelton Bady of Harvest Time Church understands the dilemma. His church played a large role in the relief effort and even still, he said, he sees the lasting effects. “We’re a year beyond the flood but some people are still years before they recover,” he said. The setbacks in the flood-prone area are cumulative.

He remembers the streets like rivers, as he and dozens of volunteers went door to door to help get people out of apartments or bring food to people. A pastor in the community for 26 years, he’s seen many storms and the daily struggles that emerge in their aftermath. But he’s also seen the regular grind of the area’s poverty take its toll. Each week, residents line up for food from the Houston Food Bank, sometimes waiting for up to six hours. The Greenspoint neighborhood is divided between office buildings and some of the highest concentrations of multi-family housing in Houston, according to Susan Rogers, director of the Community Design Resource Center out of the University of Houston. More than a third of residents in the Greenspoint area live below the poverty level and roughly a quarter live without that virtual Houston necessity, a car, according to Rogers. Though many of the apartment complexes are badly worn, they also represent affordability.

But with apartments in the area being so vulnerable to flooding, he said, “I don’t know all the details but I recommend, if your apartments got flooded twice, you have to do something differently. Something has to be done differently.”

Bady said he wants things done the right way: “If you’re going to eliminate some apartment complexes, do it when you put some other affordable housing in. Do it with the consideration that this is these people’s home. And don’t let it be that you let the area deteriorate so a few years down the road other people come in and building something different because it’s close to the airport and major roads. We’ve seen that many times. Have a plan that considers the residents,” he urged.

Strange did not enjoy living in Arbor Court. When the flood came, she was living with her mother, who was battling cancer, and newborn baby. For months after her baby’s delivery, she said she struggled with bleeding. Because of the complications, she said she lost her job at a clinic. “Once I lost my apartment,” she said. “I just gave up.”

In February, her mother died. Then, after getting in a fight with a group of girls she said followed her home from the corner store, she got an eviction notice. She shrugs it off, ready to let go of Arbor Court. Strange, now in school to become a medical assistant, got rid of most of her furniture, all of it purchased with her disaster assistance money, and is hoping to find another place. Maybe a townhome with more space for her and her son.

“I just want something better,” said Strange.

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Leah Binkovitz

Leah Binkovitz is Senior Editor with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

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