Your Apartment Is Flooded But The Rent Is Still Due

Sep 1, 2017
Originally published on September 1, 2017 8:17 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Harvey is finally starting to dissipate. The remains of the Category 4 hurricane are now pouring rain as far away as Tennessee. In Texas and Louisiana, floodwaters are receding, revealing just how much damage the storm did.

More than 30 people are now confirmed dead. Property damage is estimated to be about a hundred billion dollars. Thousands of people remain evacuated. NPR's Nathan Rott is in Houston and has been recovering - has been reporting on recovery efforts. Hi, Nate.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

MARTIN: We've heard this recovery effort isn't going, obviously, to be measured in weeks. This is going to take a really long time - months even years. Can you just give us a sense today of where things stand?

ROTT: Really, I think it kind of depends on where you are. You know, parts of Houston and the coast are still flooded and could be for some time. You know, they're swollen reservoirs, explosions at a chemical plant. And we're hearing now that people in Beaumont - a town about 70 miles to the east of where I am - has lost its drinking water. So there are people that are still very much in a dire emergency situation.

In a lot of Houston though, I think that post-adrenaline reality is starting to sink in. Normal life is kind of starting to come back. And some people are able to return to their homes, assess the damage. And they're realizing just how long this recovery is going to take.

MARTIN: You've been talking to folks. Is there anything in particular? I mean, there's so many things to be concerned about right now. But has something stood out to you in your conversations?

ROTT: Yes, actually. And I know that this is going to seem small when we're comparing it to, you know, swift water rescues and exploding chemical plants. But a recurring issue that I have heard from people is rent.

MARTIN: Rent?

ROTT: Yeah. It's the first of the month so...

MARTIN: Seems so mundane, right?

ROTT: Yeah, but it's so typical. And, I mean, here's the thing. Even if your home is flooded - it's soggy with stinky water. You're evacuated - whatever it may be. If it says in your lease that rent is due today, it is still due.

And I can tell you that people here are not happy about this. Here's the answer my colleague Rebecca Hersher got from a mother of five in a flooded apartment in northeast Houston when she asked the woman - Witlee Hurd is her name - if she was still planning to pay for rent.

WITLEE HURD: Hell no. Excuse my language. I don't know if you can cuss but hell no. For what? No. Why should I have to pay for them?

ROTT: Her house is in disrepair. The floor is wet. Windows are broken. I heard a similar answer a few miles to the south from Taqiyyah Weathersby as she baled water from the back of the car.

TAQIYYAH WEATHERSBY: I'm trying to empty my car. I'm trying to get the landlords to see about the rent and stuff. And they were being very diligent on us paying the rent. And we're not even here. Like, it's just the backfire behind everything is not good.

ROTT: And at an evacuation center in downtown Houston, people like Yousaf Rizwan were asking the question.

YOUSAF RIZWAN: My rent is due on the first of - tomorrow. So, like, should I go ahead and pay the rent? Or...

ROTT: To volunteer legal aids like Amir Befroui...

AMIR BEFROUI: It would be a lot more convenient if the hurricane hit like at the 15th of the month - right? - instead of the end of the month.

ROTT: Amir Befroui says he has an unfortunate answer for most of those people.

BEFROUI: There are very, very limited circumstances in where you can choose not to pay your rent.

ROTT: In fact, even after an event like this, under Texas state law, a rental has to be, quote, "totally unusable," unquote, for a tenant or landlord to terminate a lease. And even then, you have to give written notice. So let's say just part of your home is destroyed. It's not totally unusable but just really really gross - any number of in-betweens. Well, then it starts to get complicated. So the legal advice they're giving - pay the rent.

The Houston apartment association says that many of its members are bending over backwards to cut people slack. They know how difficult the situation is. But they also say that Texas' renter protection laws are predicated on those tenants paying the rent. I called Jim Harris, a property manager that I met a couple of days ago, to ask him about the situation.

JIM HARRIS: Hello.

ROTT: Hey, Mr. harris. How are you doing?

Harris says he knows it's a tough situation. And he's sympathetic. People just survived one of the worst storms in recent history.

HARRIS: And then you still got your cell phone bill. You got your electric bill. You got your gas bill. You got all these other bills that are coming in. You know you're not using electric. And you're not using gas. But they're coming too.

ROTT: But he says the same is true for the people on the other end of the rent check.

HARRIS: As a property owner, you have an obligation to the lending institution to pay your property note. Can't pay the property note unless you get the rent income from the tenants. So it's a catch-22 and a tremendous conundrum.

ROTT: So Rachel, it's like Jim Harris says. People are just now having to deal with - start having to deal with the daily minutia of life - like you, me and everyone else - on top of dealing with their damaged homes, being evacuated and the trauma of living through a Category 4 hurricane.

MARTIN: Is there anything that can make that easier for these people?

ROTT: A lot of these people are really depending on FEMA to help them out. FEMA is urging people to make claims and register with them. But we're talking about thousands and thousands of people. So it's going to be a big undertaking. And I know there's a lot of distrust that people have towards FEMA. They're skeptical that the federal government is going to follow through like they're saying.

MARTIN: NPR's Nate Rott. Thanks, Nate.

ROTT: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.