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First They Fought the Storm; Now, They Fight Their Landlord

Landlords are demanding rent on flooded Houston homes.
Image: Hurricane Harvey aftermath
Emiliano Soto (L) looks over his flood damaged east Houston home as his task of cleaning up begins in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Houston on Sept. 1, 2017. Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the south coast of Texas as a major hurricane category 4. The last time a major hurricane of this size hit the United States was in 2005.Tannen Maury / EPA file

First, they fought the storm. Now, they're fighting their landlord.

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, many beleaguered South Texas residents are facing demands to pay rent on apartments that are uninhabitable, or that they can't even get to.

The disaster hotline for the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid organization, a non-profit that provides free legal services to low-income residents, has been getting over 100 calls a day. The majority of calls involve landlord and tenant disputes, said Communications Director Nancy Nusser.

"There are three problems," Nusser told NBC News in an email. "Landlords telling tenants they have to pay rent, even though their apartments were flooded and are now uninhabitable; landlords telling tenants they have to do their own repairs; landlords telling tenants they have to pay rent until they can get their things out of the apartment, even though they can't get to the apartment."

Image: Houston Area Begins Slow Recovery From Catastrophic Harvey Storm Damage
Residents begin the process of cleaning up the damage to their property after torrential rains caused widespread flooding during Hurricane Harvey on Sept. 1, 2017 in Houston.Scott Olson / Getty Images file

In response to a public records request filed by NBC News, the Texas Attorney General's office said it has received 23 complaints involving landlords and Hurricane Harvey.

Under Texas property law, if a rental is deemed "totally unusable" due to natural disaster, the lease can be terminated by either the landlord or renter with written notice, said Fred Fuchs, an adjunct housing professor and director of the housing clinic at the University of Texas at Austin.

But if the property is only "partially unusable," then a tenant can still be asked to pay up and may only qualify for a rent reduction. The landlord decides whether a property is totally or partially unusable

"It's a horrible situation from the perspective of tenants and a bad situation for landlords," said Fuchs. "But landlords at least have better rights."

The floodwaters receded, and the sidewalks of entire subdivisions in Houston and its suburbs are now replete with water-soaked wooden dressers, sofa recliners, paperwork, and children's clothes. In front of every home in every flooded neighborhood sits the soggy discard pile of the American Dream, waiting for the garbage truck.

Many property owners need to start demolishing and cutting out wet drywall before the mold sets in — but before they can begin, they need to remove their tenants' water-soaked possessions. Some are giving their tenants a grace period to go through their stuff. Others are sending in crews to put it on the curb ASAP.

"It's a real balancing act," Andy Teas, vice president of public affairs for the Houston Apartment Association, a trade group of landlords representing approximately 90 percent of all of Houston's multi-family rental units, said.

"On the one hand you want to be very sensitive with people's belongings if they had to evacuate and might not have a way to get back...A water-soaked couch in the way could be a family heirloom," he said.

"If you have a unit that's flooded, water may have soaked the carpet and sheetrock and you have to get the resident's stuff out of the way so you can pull up the wet carpet," said Teas.

Housing Crunch Turned Desperate

As property owners race to salvage their investments, tenants are left to struggle for affordable housing solutions that were already strained before the storm hit.

And once they pick through their soggy belongings, they are finding few options for places to stay.

Before the storm hit there were approximately 70,000 vacant units, according to the Houston Apartment Association, out of a total of 600,000. According to reports, at least 60,000 of the overall stock may have had some damage.

Twenty-six-year-old stay-at-home mom Natalie Bell-Bacon waded through chest-high water to her neighbor's house with her two young children and husband after the Dickinson, Texas home they were renting began to take on water. Civilians drove them in a boat to a shelter where they were able to stay for a few days before the Sheriff's department made them leave, she said.

While there, their landlord, Jose Gonzalez, said he called to tell them he had started removing their items from the house and gave them five days to collect them so he could start cutting out damaged drywall and begin the cleanup.

"The damage can cost five-fold because of the mold," the engineer told NBC News. The financial impact is compounded by the fact he wasn't required to carry flood insurance, despite the home being near a bayou.

"This storm was just an anomaly. Just unprecedented," said Gonzalez. "It was biblical in nature."

Ultimately, both sides decided the family shouldn't stay in the home anymore. But they disagreed about how long they had before they needed to vacate. Tempers flared. Cellphone videos were taken. Police were called. When they arrived, they gave the tenants two hours to exit.

The family is staying at a hotel near her husband's oil pipeline job — but they'll have to hit the road again, as their renter's insurance won't pay for any more nights. They may be forced to to join the throngs filling up nearby hotels using their FEMA vouchers.

"We don't have anywhere to go," Bell-Bacon told NBC News. "We don't have anywhere to live." On Friday she found herself at a nearby apartment complex, hopeful she could work out a new housing arrangement.

Gonzalez lamented that while his former tenant might qualify for FEMA assistance, he doesn't because the property is not his primary residence.

"Why isn't FEMA helping landlords?" he said. "We're providing housing for people who can't afford their own homes. What are we doing for the middle class?"