'The Numbers Ain't Crunching': Two Years After Harvey, Some Flooded Homes Still Aren't Repaired

Aug 30, 2019

It's been two years since Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston, and some residents are still struggling to fix their homes and navigate a complex maze to get help. Kenneth Leverier has owned his house in Trinity Gardens for 15 years and says it never flooded until Harvey. 

"It was like being outside," Leverier said. "The roof busted up. I had water come through the walls. I had water coming out the floors. I mean it was a disaster." 

He lives with his wife, Donna, and his uncle, who's in a wheelchair. They have no working bathroom. Nonprofit agencies started the job, but he says the work stopped three months ago.  

"The floor is half pulled up. The roof is halfway undone. I mean, they just put some plastic over it and left it," Leverier said. "And then, after they tore up the restroom, I get a call about a week later saying, 'We can't do nothing to your house because the numbers ain't crunching.'" 

The bathroom in Leverier's home.
Credit Jen Rice / Houston Public Media

The sink is a bucket on the floor. Everything is covered in plastic. 

"I shouldn't have to go through this here," he said. "Everybody that came here and tore up my restroom, they have a bathroom at home. Why I shouldn't have a restroom at home?" 

Leverier said he brushes his teeth in the kitchen, and he uses a sponge to bathe his uncle, a disabled veteran. It's not what he imagined.

"When I bought this house, I had a dream to fix it up for me and my wife to live our days out," he said. 

Leverier said most of his Northeast Houston neighborhood flooded, and he said he feels like they're invisible to local officials. 

"But because you ain't took the time to come in our community, and get with your people in the community, guess what? You don't know what we're feeling," he said.

Leverier said a nonprofit agency came in and started work, but didn't finish. Many areas are covered in plastic.
Credit Jen Rice / Houston Public Media

He said his income is a monthly disability check around $600 and he isn't able to afford flood insurance. Leverier didn't get financial help from FEMA, but even if he had, that may not have fixed everything. FEMA spokesperson Kurt Pickering said, on average, assistance can be around $7,000. 

"So it's obviously not enough to rebuild a house," Pickering said. "It's typically not enough money to put things back the way they were, but that's not what our mission is. We don't make people whole — we get them on the road to recovery."

People tend to think that it's FEMA that handles home repairs, but it's also the federal housing department. Days after the storm, the City of Houston requested $12 billion for different kinds of housing relief. It took the city almost a year and a half to receive a fraction of that. City officials said they were given $400 million to spend on home repairs, and the first homeowner reimbursement checks went out in April.

That leaves a gap between the cost of damages and the available funding, and that's where a patchwork of private donations comes in.

"The way that disaster recovery works in the U.S. is a storm hits, and it's a year or two years later, or even longer in some cases, that the federal funds are actually allocated and ready to be spent," said Elena White, director of the Houston nonprofit Harvey Home Connect

What was available right away, she said, was private funding. The Greater Houston Community Foundation raised $114 million for the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund from around 125,000 donors.

"That's where the philanthropic resources really kicked in," White said. 

Harvey Home Connect is not handling Kenneth Leverier's case, it helps people in similar situations navigate the complicated nonprofit world of home repair. The majority of their clients do not have flood insurance, White said.

Since Harvey, it has completed 651 homes by connecting homeowners with repair nonprofits, and it's planning to complete 1,000 homes by the end of the year. 

"We'll go through the steps of determining their eligibility for the private funding," White said. "We'll match them to a home repair nonprofit that uses private funding. They'll go out to do an assessment." 

Leverier says his neighbors in the Trinity Gardens community are also waiting for repairs.
Credit Jen Rice / Houston Public Media

Ideally, the repairs can be completed through this partnership, but sometimes, she said, the work that's needed to make the home safe is beyond the scope of their program. 

"For those homes we're unable to move forward and we go ahead and refer them into the city and the county CDBG-R programs," White said. They've referred over 300 homes. 

Two years later, the condition of some homes has worsened, making repairs more expensive than they would have been in 2017. And now, there are fewer resources available.

"There are less philanthropic funds still out there," she said. "Many of our partners have now spent – helping the 651 people we talked about and others – the funding they had available. So that means that we now have gaps in our geographic service area."

For Kenneth Leverier, getting help to repair his bathroom and the rest of his home is still a slow patchwork process. He applied for the city's federal housing funding. He hopes a nonprofit group will finish the job.   

"I just try not to lose hope and faith, but the way it's going, I see why the good Lord says don't put your trust in man or woman because they will let you down," Leverier said. "And that's precisely what's being done."

Moving Forward

Berlye Magee is another homeowner who is still struggling to restore her house to safe conditions. "It's still so much work that needs to be done," Magee said. "It's just been so much pressure."

She said she received around $1,000 in FEMA assistance and it didn't go far. 

"The money I received from FEMA was just enough money for them to patch up my roof and to put some drywall at the top," Magee said. "Several weeks later, the water was still seeping. I have mildew all in the back of my home."

Magee was one of many frustrated homeowners at the city's Harvey recovery town hall meeting Thursday night at the Fifth Ward Multi-Service Center. Mayor Sylvester Turner presented the latest information about how homeowners can access federal funding for home repairs. He urged them to complete the mandatory first step: filling out the city's Harvey recovery survey. 

With November elections coming up, the event was both informational and political. Candidates for local offices canvassed for support, including mayoral candidate Bill King, who is challenging Turner's reelection bid. Dozens of residents stayed after to fill out the survey, hoping to be eligible for financial relief.

Magee said she filled out the survey months ago.

"I received an email back from the survey committee telling me that they had to take care of the senior citizens and the people with children," Magee said. "I have not heard from anyone as of yet. This was in March. I haven't even been invited to go to any facilities where I can sit down and talk to somebody about my situation." 

For now, she said, her bathroom floor is sinking because of dry-rot, and she hasn't been able to remove a tree that fell on part of the house during the storm. 

"I just need help. My house has sunken. I need my foundation to be repaired. I have done so much that I can possibly do on my own," Magee said. "I am just in dire strait need of help."

From Houston Public Media