Harvey Reflections: Fifth Ward Weathers the Storm, Wary of Gentrification

The iconic Fifth Ward art installation Fifth Ward Jam, created from a houses slated for demolition. Photo: Flickr user Reuse Warehouse.

As president of the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation, Kathy Flanagan Payton has been working to improve the underserved neighborhood’s housing stock, upgrading quality and expanding affordable housing options for residents. With some homes flooded and others impacted by indirect losses during Harvey, Fifth Ward stands at a crossroads. Payton hopes recovery money could help boost the neighborhood and a struggling housing stock. But she worries that a creeping gentrification may only accelerate after the storm.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Kathy Flanagan Payton.

Were you worried as the rain started falling? 

Initially I wasn’t worried at all because Fifth Ward has typically been high ground. My greatest concern was just the general condition of the existing housing stock given the age and the composition and the ongoing deterioration as a result of the socioeconomic issues. I knew there were going to be some challenges in the area as we saw the damage across Houston I became increasingly concerned about the impact to families in terms of indirect losses. While they may not have taken on water they were threatened by loss of income, loss of mobility, all of those things were concerning for us as we talked about moving forward: what impact will this have on us long-term?

How did you start to assess the impact?

We had people make assessments every four hours. In the core, a lot of the houses fared well. My concern was heightened when I saw on the news that the community had to break into a local church for refuge. When I saw that – that community was just in the northern quadrant of our community – [I thought] we’re not as safe as I thought we were.

What has been the impact on the neighborhood?

We are amidst recovery right now and helping families as best we can. The challenge now is this whole issue of vetting and discerning what were damages from this storm. If you think about Fifth Ward and other underserved areas, [we] are challenged because we have not recovered from Hurricane Ike, so now you have additional damages sustained that have not been repaired. I can go back to Allison and Rita and Katrina. Each time these storms take a little bit out. Because of some title issues that plague an older neighborhood people are not really getting their assistance.

We’ve got a lot of seniors in the community. We’ve got probably a 50/50 split between renters and homeowners. The renters are receiving probably less assistance and have greater demands on them. I’ve got one family paying $900 every two weeks for a hotel. It’s those type of things that are real scary for us.

Because of their limited exposure working with insurance claims, people have been hesitant to get rid of stuff. They are inclined to try to salvage as much as they can.

What were the immediate needs? Was it a large number of homes?

The immediate need was to address those families who had taken on water. And make sure we had begun to deal with their personal safety, whether that was getting them out of the house, cleaning the houses, finding temporary housing for them.

There were a lot of [affected] homes in the northern community. One of the frustrations I think we have, there’s no science and no data, no centralized GIS that is accurately reporting the severity of the damage. It’s a communication problem. Houston has not, in my opinion, done a good job in pushing for a centralized data system where we can focus on the needs of clients. They’re trying to push everything to 211 or 311 but they’re taking all requests so that ranges from direct hits from water to loss of income, there’s no way to discern the physical damages.

Even today, I would be excited if all the houses had been cleaned and mucked but I know that’s not the case. A lot of people who don’t understand the system are simply waiting for FEMA or waiting for insurance.

That can be so frustrating to navigate, particularly if homes have sustained prior damage and particularly for neighborhoods with fewer resources to make those repairs. What are some of the challenges there?

FEMA is not necessarily sharing the reason for the denial [so much] as they are just denying. We have some renters being denied because landlords need to apply. They’re pushed to the Small Business Administration. It gets pushed back to FEMA and then it’s over and done. Similar things are happening with my homeowners because of a lack of clarity and technical savvy in terms of completing applications. I’ve got seniors who are on fixed incomes recommended for SBA loans and the SBA loan in the first couple pages talks about taking your property and the lien that will be placed on their home and that’s fearful for them. They can’t cover their expenses now without a loan so it’s a setup for failure. I may have the credit worthiness but how would you consider me given the fixed income I have? It really does not make sense.

The story in Houston is an unjust story. The affluent didn’t have varying vulnerabilities in terms of economic disparities and age of the house and all those things. You see people with some level of affluence contracting contractors and paying premium prices to get the work done with a combination of insurance and FEMA.

How does that all contribute to the long-term health of the neighborhood?

I hope this will be the perfect storm honestly, we were already amidst comprehensive revitalization efforts and have always been challenged by deteriorating housing stock within the community. This gives us the opportunity to provide repairs to many of those residents and provide them with repair funds or replacement housing that otherwise would not have happened. Life gives you lemon you try to figure out how to make lemonade. Beyond this, resources were far and few for homeowners. What I hope it doesn’t do is create this investor market where you have people coming in with different scams to buy these properties out and then transfer [those] to market rate housing, which will accelerate gentrification.

Are you seeing signs of that already?

You see a lot of the bandit signs. The fact that I’m seeing those signs and houses being abandoned, Fifth Ward was already a great market for developers wanting to extend into northeast Houston. Even if they’re not putting bandit signs up, they’re doing mass mailings saying we’ll buy your house. This may be that opportunity.

Did Harvey changed the way you felt about Houston?

It really doesn’t. I think stuff happens. We are in a geography where we’re plagued with hurricanes. I think it’s a part of life. If anything my opinion of Houston has increased because what I’ve seen is not a lot of bickering and fighting. I’ve seen different ethnicities and faith groups really come together.

The community has really rallied together.

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Leah Binkovitz

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

2 Comments

  1. Another great community leader representing not only interest of Fifth Ward, but surrounding communities. The amount of time that her and her team in the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation have put towards helping our communities pre-and-post Harvey is commendable. Great article.

  2. HI, we are a group of folks trying to create cohousing in Houston. (www.cohousinghouston.com). We want to do it inside the loop. We are having an event at the Asia Society next Friday, Nov. 17 where Chuck Durrett and his wife, Katie McCamant, gurus of the US cohousing movement will speak to Houston about the cohousing model can help us all. Come and see.

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