Flooding in Northeast Houston during Harvey. Photo: Juan Antonio Sorto.

While some areas saw marked increases, others experienced high numbers of eviction case filings before and after the storm.

From her living room, Connie Castillo watched the world go by. Just west of downtown Houston, from the 11th floor of her apartment building that serves low-income senior citizens, Castillo had the perfect view for the city’s many celebrations. On the Fourth of July, for example, she said during an injunction hearing in Harris County district court, “I can sit there on my balcony and watch the fireworks and the events that happen on the bayou. I don't even have to leave my home. At rodeo time the trail riders pass right in front of us.” 

For Castillo, a 61-year old retired secretary on a fixed income, the subsidized unit offered stability, comfort and community. Until Hurricane Harvey. From her apartment, Castillo watched the bayou swell and creep into the first floor of the complex. Shortly after, she and the other residents of the 196-unit mixed-income complex received a notice to vacate the premises within five days or lose all their belongings. “I was paralyzed,” Castillo said recalling the notice. “I e-mailed my friends and said: 'I don't know where I'm going. I may not have a phone anymore.' I thought I was going to lose contact with my world.” 

Disaster and displacement

Displacement after the storm took many forms. Some, like Castillo, received lease termination notices that, under special rules for partially or totally uninhabitable properties, can demand a tenant leave less than a week after receiving it. Others fell behind on their income, facing the threat of eviction. Organizations like the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid anticipated potential conflicts between landlords and tenants in affected units, urging cities to “pass emergency ordinances that adjust the amount of rent tenants must pay to avoid eviction based on the extent of the damage per Texas law, and waive late fees for the month of September while these issues are worked out.” That ordinance, however, would have required approval by the state legislature, which was not in session during the storm. But Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner did urge landlords to waive or delay the collection of late fees.

Though organizations like the Society of St. Vincent de Paul tried to fill the gaps with short-term rental assistance, recovery funding tends to be structured for homeowners, through repair assistance, buyouts and other programs. And for renters vulnerable to displacement not due to a damaged unit but because of lost income as a result of the storm, there were even fewer options available after the storm. The area’s existing affordable housing crunch added additional challenges for displaced residents.

Between August and September, Lone Star Legal Aid, which provides free legal assistance to income-eligible clients, saw applications for assistance with private landlord-tenant disputes, including evictions, increase from 69 to 233, according to numbers provided by Lone Star Legal Aid, many of those were Harvey-related. 

Multiple disasters at once

Examining evictions filed in Houston and Harris County before and after the storm, though just one of the ways people experience displacement, reveals where Houston-area residents experienced increased threats of eviction after the storm as well as the areas and populations that experience that threat more regularly, disaster or not. Both geographies are important to consider as the region invests in resiliency.

Overall, evictions in Houston did decrease between August and September, suggesting that perhaps some landlords heeded Turner’s words. But that decrease also aligns with similar seasonal changes seen in past years. Summer months tend to see a higher number of eviction cases filed, partly because costs for families with kids out of school can quickly climb. 

But even with the overall drop, a handful of zip codes saw marked increases. Spring Branch’s 77055 saw the largest increase, with the number of cases filed jumping from 9 in August to 41. The Braeburn area and just north within the 77074 zip code also saw large increases, as well as having a higher number of cases filed in general, increasing from 40 to 102 between August and September. Other zip codes in Montrose and the Heights also saw increases at or above 100 percent. 

By October, cases filed jumped back up, with more than 25 zip codes experiencing a 100 percent or greater increase in the number of eviction cases filed between September and October. Kingwood’s 77339 saw the largest increase but that was partly driven by its overall lower number of filings, going from just one to 12 between September and October. By comparison, the area around Addicks Reservoir, in the 77084 zip code, went from 45 to 114 eviction cases filed between September and October. 

Though some of these increases are very likely linked to flooding, a statistical analysis revealed that increases in the number of eviction cases filed before and after Harvey were not positively correlated to the percent of damage in a given zip code, using the city’s damage estimates, though there was a positive relationship between the percentage of units damaged in a zip code and the number of eviction cases filed. This suggests that while flooding seems tied to increases in places like Addicks, there may be more diffused effects of a disaster, particularly in interaction within the constraints of rising rents and a sudden increase in demand for rental units. It also suggests that populations experiencing higher numbers of eviction filings may also be more vulnerable to flooding.

“We have seen an increase in requests for rent assistance since Harvey but we attribute that to the rise in rents,” Martha Macris, president and CEO of Memorial Assistance Ministries wrote in an email. “Apartments in northwest Houston have become quite scarce and expensive.  Of course, this is attributable to Harvey and the shortage of rental property.”Renters with such limited options are vulnerable to substandard conditions and forced displacement, including eviction."

Harvey didn’t just flood homes, it also closed jobs and ruined cars. A study 2017 from the Episcopal Health Foundation found that roughly a third of Harvey-affected residents in Harris County said they had fallen behind on rent or mortgage payments and roughly half of all Harris County respondents said someone in their household either lost income or employment because of the storm. 

Renters also found themselves with less assistance after the storm. An analysis of applications for assistance with the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the wake of the storm shows that renters, in particular, were less likely to be approved for assistance than homeowners. The Individuals and Households Program offers assistance for things like rental assistance, home repair and replacement assistance, lodging expense reimbursement and other costs. Using data through December 20, 2017, the Kinder Institute found that 45.8 percent of homeowners who applied to the program received some form of assistance but only 34.2 percent of renters did.

The analysis of eviction filings also showed that higher shares of cost-burdened renters, black residents and households at twice or below the poverty level were all negatively associated with increases in eviction case filings before and after the storm. The relationship between the percent of renters applying for federal emergency aid after the storm in a given zip code and changes in eviction cases filed before and after in a given zip code was not statistically significant.

When simply considering the overall number of eviction cases filed following Harvey, and not the change, different vulnerabilities appear. Here the percent of households at twice or below poverty, the share of black residents and the percent of cost-burdened renters were all positively associated with higher numbers of eviction case filings. 

This suggests two disasters playing out side by side. 

Greenspoint, for example, was impacted by flooding but is also in a zip code that experiences high numbers of eviction each month. This partly reflects its large share of renter households. Looking instead at the share of renter households that are at risk for eviction, based on the number of cases filed and the number of renter households, one of the areas with the highest percentage of its renter households facing eviction after Harvey was the 77078 zip code, which includes part of East Houston, a neighborhood hit heavily by the storm. Nearby 77016 was another zip code where a large share of renter households were facing eviction after Harvey. 

Though there’s a lack of research about the connection between eviction and disaster, previous research and reporting suggest that disasters can lead to negative housing outcomes more broadly, particularly for low-income populations. Initial evidence suggests this was the case following Hurricane Harvey. The Houston-based Apartment Data Services surveyed apartment owners after the storm and estimated that some 14,852 units were damaged, or 2.3 percent of the total supply. The survey, covered by the Houston Business Journal, found rising rents and occupancy rates across the Houston area in the wake of the storm. And some of the areas hardest hit, also saw the biggest increases in rent, according to another market study.“In a city with the kind of affordable housing shortage we’re facing and with a lead time of 24 months to put a new apartment on the ground, we simply are not at the place where we can close or tear down a large number of apartments without putting severe strain here,” explained Tom McCasland, head of Houston’s housing department. Meanwhile, the waiting list at the Houston Housing Authority’s grew from approximately 43,500 in October to 73,200 by February and it “shows no sign of slowing down,” according to Tory Gunsolley, the director of the Houston Housing Authority.

Eviction not as a dark valley but an altered destination

Eviction as a formal process can be done for a number of reasons, including nonpayment of rent or other lease violations. But in an analysis of Milwaukee renter survey data, individual factors were also found to contribute to a landlord’s decision to evict regardless of missed rent. The likelihood of eviction, for example, increased for every additional child in the household. A renter’s likelihood of eviction also increased in concert with rising neighborhood crime rates as well as neighborhood disadvantage. All of these factors were associated with higher eviction rates net of missed payments. This speaks to the layers of vulnerability embedded in eviction. 

Beyond these triggers, eviction itself has been shown to reproduce disadvantage, making it a critical process to examine in the wake of a disaster, which can exacerbate inequities. Low-income families, another study argues, for example, are known to move frequently but eviction, both formal and informal, contributes to that instability by forcing renters into often precarious and unsuitable housing situations. Renters forced to leave often relocated to worse housing units or more disadvantaged neighborhoods, according to the analysis. This is likely partly due to necessity in a rushed situation to find a place to live or because of common limits placed on renters with formal evictions on their records. 

Eviction has also been linked to negative health outcomes, including increased stress and depression. Using longitudinal data from a national survey, researchers measured the impact of eviction on one particularly vulnerable group: low-income mothers. “The year following eviction is incredibly trying for low-income mothers,” the study found. “Eviction spares neither their material, physical, nor mental wellbeing.” At least two years after experiencing an eviction, mothers “still experienced significantly higher rates of material hardship and depression” when compared to their peers. The researchers also suggest that these negative impacts have durable consequences for their children as well. “On some measures, eviction may not simply drop poor mothers and their children into a dark valley, a trying yet relatively short section along life’s journey; it may fundamentally redirect their way, casting them onto a different, and much more difficult, path,” the study argues.

When Castillo received her notice, the Houston Housing Authority, which declined to comment on the case for this story, also shared lists of alternative apartments. “They gave us sheets of apartments, and if you call, it was, like, more than I could afford, or they weren't available, or no one would rent me an apartment in my current situation,” said Castillo. With the court case still pending, Castillo contemplated what would happen if she were indeed forced to leave. “I would be devastated,” she said. “I'd have to live in my car. I shouldn't have to live in my car. No one would rent to me. I -- I -- I -- I would be homeless. I don't want to be homeless.”