HOUSTON (CN) – The Houston City Council voted Wednesday to suspend restrictions against people living in trailers, RVs and shipping containers on their property, to help the more than 4,000 residents still displaced by Hurricane Harvey flood damage.
Abbott’s request includes $9 billion to repair 85,000 homes in Houston, a small percentage of the estimated 311,000 Harvey-damaged homes in the Houston area.
So far, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has allocated $5 billion for Texas home repairs. But as Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at Wednesday’s City Council meeting, that $5 billion will probably not arrive in Houston until May or June.
“So what do we tell people in homes where there’s mold? What do you tell them?” Turner asked the City Council.
Turner repeatedly said at the meeting that he is concerned about the people who are out of options, like the 90-year-old woman who told him she has been sleeping on her couch in her living room due to flood damage.
More than five months after Harvey stalled over Greater Houston in late August, dropping more than 51 inches of rain in some parts of the sprawling city, there are more than 4,000 Houstonians living in hotels and thousands more who are still out of their homes, city officials said.
“There are many people who have options, so they aren’t in their homes. They may be in a hotel, they may be in an apartment, they may be staying with relatives. There are many people who have options, but I want to focus on people who don’t have options and many of them are elderly,” Turner said.
Known for its lack of city-imposed zoning that results in odd juxtapositions like oil drilling equipment shops surrounded by three-story townhomes, Houston’s layout is mainly governed by the deed restrictions put in place by hundreds of homeowners’ associations that make the rules for subdivisions.
The city does, however, restrict trailer homes and RVs to mobile home parks.
The City Council passed an ordinance Wednesday to suspend that restriction until Aug. 31, 2019. Homeowners who want to put their own trailer – or one supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency – RV or shipping container on their property to live in can now do so, as long as they get permission from their HOA and a permit from the city.
Turner told council members that under the ordinance, homeowners can keep the temporary housing on their property for six months while repairs are being made to their homes, and apply for a six-month extension of their permit.
Before the City Council passed the ordinance with a unanimous vote, council member Mike Knox, a former Houston police officer, said he was concerned about “bad actors” who will decide not to remove their temporary housing from their properties after their permits expire.
“Are we going to have to treat that then as an abandoned vehicle or a dangerous building that requires years of legal maneuvering to get them removed?” he asked Turner.
Knox suggested for the city’s public works department, which will handle the permit process, to put a checkbox on the permit form stating that if the property owner does not remove the temporary housing after their permit expires, the city will be free to come remove the structure at the owner’s expense.
“I will direct Public Works to include that kind of language,” said Turner, a licensed attorney who served as a Texas state representative for 27 years until January 2016, when he took office as Houston’s mayor.
Council member Mike Laster upset Turner when he said he intended to tag the ordinance, a procedural move that delays a vote on it for seven days, because he wanted more clarity on whether homeowners would have to get approval from their HOAs before installing temporary housing.
“I can say I am disappointed. I am disappointed because we are asking Congress to move with a great degree of urgency, there are literally people who are living in tents in their front yards,” Turner told Laster.
Turner said Congress was supposed to vote on authorizing more housing-repair assistance for Harvey victims in Texas in December, then January, but they did not.
“We are having this conversation now because the dollars have not flowed as we had hoped they would, and when you recognize that then you have to do something different, and that’s what we’re doing,” Turner said, his voice tightening to a near growl.
Turner repeatedly said he is “not a fan” of temporary housing, but he pointed out that the city passed a similar measure after Tropical Storm Allison caused severe flooding in 2001 and Hurricane Ike did major wind damage to the area in 2008.
Houston Public Works Director Carol Ellinger Haddock told council members that the city passed an ordinance allowing trailers on private property weeks after Allison hit, and “we didn’t experience the fears” of people keeping structures on their property longer than allowed.
Councilman Greg Travis, an attorney in the Houston office of Hoover Slovacek, said he agreed with Laster that the vote should be delayed until the ordinance details are worked out.
“If we can wait five and a half months, we can wait seven more days to get it right,” Travis said.
But some of his fellow council members disagreed.
“I feel that the seven days is a meaningful period,” Houston Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Cohen said.
She added, “That’s seven days of driving your kids from wherever you are at the moment to the school near the home where they’re registered because you’re not living on the property at the moment, or it’s taking your elderly parents for continued health care because you are living on the property in mold. It’s three meals a day out because you can’t cook in the home.”
Cohen also said people want to live on their property to protect their homes from looters.
Councilwoman Karla Cisneros said she shares Cohen’s concerns.
“I think seven days is a lot of time. I have people who are essentially living outside, you drive through in the evenings and you see them cooking in their driveways, and they’ve got furniture around their front yards and that’s essentially where they’re living,” said Cisneros, a former school teacher and school board member.
Cisneros said an elderly woman in her district is not worried about people breaking into her home, which has been stripped to the studs.
“She was afraid of critters, she said, coming up from the bayou. And that’s scary,” Cisneros said.
Satisfied with the spirited discussion, Laster opted not to delay the vote.
“My intention for doing a tag was to have exactly this discussion, because for the last week I’ve been trying to get this information about how this is going to work,” he said.
Turner told the City Council the public works department still has to finalize the ordinance rules.
But Haddock, the department director, said that she expected some homeowners who had been asking the city to authorize temporary housing for months would apply for a permit Wednesday afternoon.
Haddock said FEMA had staged trailers about 140 miles north of Houston, but she did not know when the agency would start bringing them to Houston for Harvey victims.
A FEMA spokesperson said on Wednesday afternoon that it did not know how many trailers it will provide for Houston residents because the city just passed the ordinance.
They said that FEMA has historically supplied trailers for less than 2 percent of disaster-relief applicants.