Low-income Houstonians disproportionately affected by Harvey

Houston Business Journal, September 12, 2017                                                          

Since Harvey hit Houston, Berenice Yu has been busy fielding 50 calls a day from her students, many of them low-income families struggling to afford a piece of the American Dream.

As Avenue Community Development Corp.’s director of asset building programs, Yu oversees the Houston-based nonprofit affordable housing developer’s HomeOwnership Center, which provides homeownership education classes to some 800 households a year. Harvey’s devastating and costly floods have had a disproportionate impact on the Bayou City’s poorest families, Yu said.

“Life tends to be much more complicated when you have fewer resources,” Yu said. “When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, something like (Harvey) can throw your entire life through a loop.”

Yu helped a single father with two kids who closed on their first home Aug. 23., just days before Harvey dropped more than 50 inches of rain on the Houston area. The torrential downpours flooded their home near Tidwell Road and Beltway 8, northeast of Houston, forcing the entire family to evacuate, Yu said.

“This family saved for a long time and put everything into this house,” Yu said. “They had lost the mom. Now they lost everything. This home was their hopes and dreams, and it got taken away.”

Low-income Houstonians face a long journey toward recovery. Many low-income homeowners inherited their house after a relative passed away, and since the house is paid off, they may not have home or flood insurance or even a clear title to the home, Yu said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency requires a clear title to receive government assistance to repair and rebuild homes.

“It’s their home, but they don’t have any legal documents,” Yu said. “If there are any deferred taxes, those taxes need to be paid up and then there are probate court expenses. It all adds up.”

Navigating the FEMA recovery process is also daunting for many low-income families. There is paperwork to fill out, accounts to create and documents to organize. Some families have trouble gathering and keeping all this information together, Yu said. Avenue CDC has helped to file more than 170 FEMA applications so far for Houstonians.
“Everything is now automated through phone calls and emails,” Yu said. “It’s efficient for FEMA, but for people of lower income and education, it can be tough to track multiple accounts and passwords.”
To help flooded homeowners navigate the recovery process, Avenue CDC is also introducing two new classes: “Path to Recovery for Homeowners” and “Path to Recovery for Renters.” Avenue CDC is finalizing the curriculum, and plans to offer the new classes several times a week, starting later this week. The classes will take place at Avenue CDC’s HomeOwnership Center at 707 Quitman St., but future classes may take place in some of Houston's most vulnerable communities, Yu said.

Flood insurance, which Avenue CDC used to not recommend if the home was not in a flood plain, will now be included into the financial analysis that the nonprofit does for new homebuyers, in addition to homeowners insurance and in some cases, mortgage insurance, Yu said.

“Our curriculum emphasizes the importance of homeowners insurance and flood insurance if you’re in a flood plain, but generally, we don’t recommend buying flood insurance just because,” Yu said. “We have added in the cost of National Flood Insurance for homes not in the 100-year flood plain into the financial analysis we do for new homebuyers… so that they can be aware of the existence of the insurance, have an idea of the price and how it would impact their housing cost.”

Harvey’s widespread floods have often taken more than homes, but also jobs and a support network of family and friends, who are now dealing with floodwater themselves. Yu said she is most worried about helping Houstonians keep up with expenses as they deal with repairing homes and replacing personal belongings.

“This will be a financial setback,” Yu said. “We’re trying hard to work with families to pay their bills on time so they keep their credit scores OK. Many are tapping into savings so they need to build that back up.”

Avenue CDC, which develops and operates several affordable housing communities in Houston, had about 15 units flooded off of North Main Street, but most of its properties sustained little damage after Harvey, Yu said. The nonprofit developer is now trying to figure out how it can accelerate its construction pipeline of affordable housing as demand for housing has spiked in the aftermath of Harvey, she added.

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