Houston Housing Authority strikes again

Well, they're at it again, the one department that continues to embarrass the city only somewhat less than the HPD Crime Lab. This time, the Houston Housing Authority is holding hostage all the remaining worldly possessions of several elderly immigrants, for the "best" of reasons, of course.

Back in November, the Bellerive apartments had a four-alarm fire, which destroyed several units and left 200 homeless. From the KHOU article, dated 11/27/07, the day of the fire:

More than a dozen Red Cross Caseworkers met Tuesday with elderly residents displaced by Monday’s four-alarm apartment fire... The Houston Housing Authority has placed the residents in hotels and is providing meals for them. About 150 rooms are occupied by these residents at the Hilton in southwest Houston.

Well, here it is months later, and I have to ask if they are still in hotel rooms or if they've found other places to stay, because the apartments aren't repaired yet. In fact, the building hasn't even been cleared of the tenants' possessions -- unless it's been by thieves. The KHOU report was somewhat light on details, like exactly how many residents are affected, but obviously repairs are nowhere near beginning, since HHA isn't letting some or all of the tenants back in to retrieve their clothes and personal items four months after the blaze. Why?

Asbestos, it says.

Abatement of the units and cleaning of all the items has to be done before they can be returned to their owners. The HHA insists that since the items belong to the tenants, the tenants have to pay to have their stuff cleaned. "But wait," you say, "why isn't the landlord responsible? Or the landlord's insurer? Aren't they responsible for such costs?"

Ah, therein lies the rub. You see, the Houston Housing Authority is the landlord, and, as mentioned in today's report, it blames the tenants for not having the money to get their goods back:

The money would pay for the asbestos cleanup, which is required to salvage their personal belongings left inside. Housing officials say that could cost up to $3,400 per unit.. "People would normally have renter's insurance. The fact of the matter is the Housing Authority's insurance does not cover tenant's content,” said Horace Allison, the housing authority’s vice president.

As I said, the tenants are elderly, and some are immigrants. KHOU only found those to interview today, although from the November article it is clear that the residents were, ah, largely multi-cultural. However, the text of the article posted on the website cuts off just before what I found to be the most interesting part of the televised report.

UPDATE: Reader El Capitan notes a glaring mistake in this article: the HHA is not directly a part of the city. Its board is appointed by the Mayor, but it is not a part of the City of Houston's Housing and Comunity Develompent Department

From the Chron:

Both agencies provide housing to low- and moderate-income families, but they do this through different programs and services. Both receive most of their funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and both have experienced considerable conflict and controversy.

I suppose that at least the Chronicle appreciated the chance for a little payback, given the number of times we have criticised them in the past. Of course we don't have all those layers of editors -- but I think our readers are sharper.

Under Brown, the entire Housing Department appeared to be little more than "one director's personal fiefdom" and the waste and mismanagement (if not outright fraud) were so bad, the Federal government is now demanding a refund of $15 million it says the department misused or wasted. A private owner would have the whole place cleaned up, repaired, and back in business by now, because time is money. But the City doesn't care about a boarded-up eyesore, so four months have passed while the personal effects of the tenants were still under lock and key. (We hope. Far more likely that they and two-thirds of the building's wiring have long departed the premises.) Still something didn't seem right; an element of the story had to be missing. This entire affair seemed beyond even HHA's normal level of indifference to the very people it is supposed to be housing.

Then the televised report (but again, not the article) continued by saying that the HHA is "doing what it can" by meeting with the tenants next week; in fact, they are going to bring them together with some companies that do asbestos abatement and see if they can get the companies to give them a group discount.

I had maybe a fraction of a second to appreciate the generosity of the City of Houston for going out of their way to persuade some private businesses to charge a little less to people that shouldn't be paying at all. Then my finely tuned BS detector went off: "Some companies? What companies, and how were they chosen? Given the Department's checkered history of late, and the City's obvious favoritism towards politically connected parties where property is concerned, a cynic like myself should be excused for wondering if drumming up customers for someone's business is what this was all about from the get-go.

Perhaps the tenants should count themselves lucky the building doesn't have lead paint, another thing the City seems to trip over a lot. On the other hand, the building was built in 1975, so maybe that's a forlorn hope, given the department's laxity regarding lead paint inspections.

UPDATE: I didn't think of this angle when I posted originally at Houblog, but if it weren't for the city's immunity, wouldn't they be legally liable for these losses?

First, the City's insurance doesn't cover asbestos abatement and cleanup of private property, says Horace. That implies that it could have. Otherwise this is an irrelevant point, cynically raised to divert the questioner. (Oh...never mind.)

Second, has the cause of the blaze been determined? There are five possibilities: Accident by a tenant or maintenance employee, a tenant's faulty appliance, act of God, arson, or the building itself was the faulty part. If the latter is true, it could very well be that the City is the cause of the tenants' losses as well.

Third, nine stories, no fire sprinklers? Built before the 1982 code, yes, but was it renovated when the HHA took it over? The requirements would kick in then -- unless the City gave itself a waiver.

Fourth, as in Amendment Four. By refusing to allow the the tenants to retrieve their belongings, is the City opening itself to a Fourth Amendment "illegal takings" claim? I'm sure that the City would argue that it has not "seized" the items, since they are not "in its custody," they are at the tenants' residences. However, that is a weak argument considering that the residence is controlled by the city, such that the items are thusly "stored" on city property, to which the city alone controls access.

The HHA has clearly not thought this through, but then this isn't the first time they've played fast and loose with private property after a fire.

Posted by Ubu Roi @ 03/19/08 11:34 PM | Print |

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