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HOUSTON — Guadalupe and her family may have survived Hurricane Harvey with their home intact, but they now have just three days to pay their rent, and the $80 in their bank account isn’t going to be enough.
As the waters brought by Harvey’s record rainfall recede throughout the area, and as homeowners begin to sort through the wreckage of their flooded houses, Houstonians who don’t own their homes and who survive on hourly wages are facing another problem: making rent. But the problem is even more difficult for Houston’s estimated 400,000 undocumented residents who aren’t able to collect government financial assistance at all, leaving many both out of work and out of options.
Guadalupe asked to be identified by her middle name because she is undocumented. And because Guadalupe’s husband, an electrician, is undocumented, he’s not eligible for disaster unemployment assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency — available only to U.S. citizens whose places of work were damaged by the storm.
“It can’t be because you were personally flooded out and couldn’t make it to work; it has to be the business that incurred the cost,” explained FEMA spokesperson Diana Frazier. “I would recommend that they turn to their faith-based organizations to help them with funds.”
“One of the areas that is really bad right now is the area that my husband usually works at,” said Guadalupe. “When they started saying that the first day of school is postponed … it’s like you know if they’re not going to school, then the surest thing is that they’re not going to work soon either.”
Guadalupe’s husband was sent home early from his job as an electrician on Friday, as Hurricane Harvey was bumped up from a tropical storm to a Category 4 hurricane in a matter of hours. He didn’t even get to the job site, so his supervisor couldn’t sign off on his slip confirming he’d already worked several days that week. Now he’s still owed for those days, and he hasn’t worked since Harvey hit.
“Sometimes if he works two or three days out of the week, we fall back on payments and stuff because what he gets per week sometimes isn’t enough to pay all our bills and rent,” Guadalupe explained. “So if he gets his full paycheck, his normal 40 hours, it’s barely enough to pay what we owe.”
On Wednesday, Juan Carlos Suarez and his fellow volunteers at the southeast Houston organization El Pueblo Primero went door to door asking many of the Latino, black, and low-income people who live in the area what problems they were facing after Harvey. Many told Suarez that as hourly or contracted workers, they feared being unable to make rent after so many days without work.
“Most of the tenants were concerned about getting locked out,” Suarez told VICE News. “I mean, all of them were like, ‘The landlord isn’t very lenient and we’re scared of getting late fees.’”
For many people in Houston, their rent is due Friday, the first of the month.
“From the survey that we did, it seems like they haven’t reached out to certain parts of the community”
On Friday, local high school teacher Zakary Rodriguez received word that tenants in some southeast Houston apartment complexes were being told they had to pay up Friday, or risk losing electricity and water. As Rodriguez went around the complex talking to the tenants, their fear was obvious and rampant.
“Another lady had her door open and as he was approaching the door to hand out information, she told one of her kids, ‘Close the door, he’s going to collect rent,’” Rodriguez said, gesturing at his father, Robert, who was working with him. “A lot of these people are undocumented, so they’re afraid to come out.”
Rodriguez later got in touch with one complex’s representative who told him that the tenants would have until the 16th to pay rent. The landlord didn’t immediately return VICE News’ request for comment.
“A lot of renters in Houston, period, don’t know their rights,” Rodriguez said. “And I think here the fact that people are undocumented simply compounds that. If they know they go and ask for rights, ICE might show up. So what’s a worse situation, being deported and potentially being separated from your family, or somehow trying to just make it day to day here next to your family in a hovel?”
While the city was able to help some Houstonians pay rent following the “Tax Day” floods of April 2016, it’s unclear how much assistance Houston will be able to offer Harvey victims, said the city’s director of government relations Bill Kelly, citing legal and logistical limitations. However, Mayor Sylvester Turner may be able to “use a little bit of the bully pulpit,” Kelly said, and ask property owners to voluntarily wait on asking for rents.
The Houston Housing Authority, which oversees public housing and voucher programs for more than 60,000 low-income residents (all legal U.S. citizens), told VICE News that the agency isn’t providing additional rent assistance for residents who can’t make their rent payments.
“Right now we’re encouraging people to make their rent,” said Donna Dixon, a spokesperson for the Housing Authority. “We provide assistance to our residents who need food and clothing.”
Guadalupe’s house endured some minor damage from Hurricane Harvey, but her family — which includes her three daughters, two of whom are citizens — is able to remain in their home. Ironically, that’s why they can’t get help from FEMA.
In order to qualify for FEMA rent assistance, which pays the average area rent for up to two months, the home must be completely uninhabitable or inaccessible, and the household must have at least one U.S. citizen with a Social Security number. FEMA does not check or track the immigration statuses of other household members, nor does FEMA share that information with immigration enforcement, according to Frazier, the FEMA spokesperson.
Unlike FEMA, the Red Cross doesn’t have a citizenship requirement. However, they’re not yet providing cash assistance to Houstonians affected by the hurricane.
“Right now we’re in early stages, so our first priority is getting help to people who need safe shelter and food,” said Red Cross spokesperson Janelle Eli. “It will be some time before we have information about rent assistance.”
But even if a family meets all the requirements, unlike Guadelupe’s, Suarez isn’t optimistic that vast bureaucracies like FEMA will be able to get people the rent they need in time. Many people in southeast Houston don’t seem to know what kinds of disaster relief groups like FEMA and the Red Cross provide.
“It will be some time before we have information about rent assistance.”
“From the survey that we did, it seems like they haven’t reached out to certain parts of the community,” Suarez said. “We haven’t met anybody who has filled out an application.”
Guadalupe says she tried to navigate the FEMA website Wednesday, but couldn’t manage to figure out how to apply for aid. “I barely got my internet working today,” she said. “That’s the first thing that I tried to do.”
Founded just a month before Hurricane Harvey, El Pueblo Primero — which is associated with a local church — was primarily focused on teaching ESL. Now, they’re pouring resources into helping their community recover from Harvey. They’ve already starting collecting donations to help people who need immediate aid.
“We’re starting a disaster-relief clinic next week,” Suarez said, adding that it will help people translate FEMA applications and access the internet if they still don’t have it. “If they don’t know where to go, we’re here to help guide them through it.”