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Brutal Choice in Houston: Sell Home at a Loss or Face New Floods

Miguel Lameda removed flood damaged debris from a relative’s home in the Canyon Gate at Cinco Ranch neighborhood of Houston.
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Credit...Todd Heisler/The New York Times

KATY, Tex. — When Hurricane Harvey struck Houston, floodwaters swept through Eileen and Jeff Swanson’s two-story brick home, blanketing the first floor in muck and nearly destroying a domestic existence 12 years in the making. Their china cabinet, in the family for three generations, was reduced to a sodden mess. A couch, once a soft red, had blushed into a watery burgundy; the carpet squished like grass at the bottom of a marsh. A dirty foot-high water line ran wall to wall, marking the local crest of an event that the National Weather Service called “the most significant tropical cyclone rainfall event in United States history.”

After the floodwaters receded, the Swansons returned to a house ravaged, endless questions, few answers — and a looming decision.

They are not alone. Hundreds of homeowners in Canyon Gate at Cinco Ranch, a quiet subdivision in a west Houston suburb, are mired in a slow, frustrating effort to rebuild. Others have formed an uneasy exodus, their attachment to familiar places and routines irreparably battered by a storm that dumped 50-plus inches and caused widespread flooding. They are now selling their gutted homes at well below pre-storm prices.

The fundamental decision — stay or go — is one being faced by homeowners all around the Houston area. As climate change increases the frequency and intensity of storms like Harvey, no neighborhood is immune from being flooded again. But the Swansons and other homeowners in Canyon Gate face a far more certain prospect: Their neighborhood is on land that was designed to be flooded. It is part of a reservoir that was built by the United States Army Corps of Engineers in the 1940s to prevent catastrophic flooding downtown, a fact that developers did little to publicize when they built Canyon Gate in the 1990s.

On a blistering September afternoon at the Swanson house, 20 box fans and an industrial blower ran nonstop in a battle against rot and decay. The family was still consigned to five rooms upstairs, and Ms. Swanson, 48, a senior executive assistant at an industrial automation company, was downstairs watching a YouTube demonstration of how to hang wallboard. At the top of the steps, Mr. Swanson, 52, was compiling a mental to-do list: Make another trip to Home Depot, haul more stuff to the storage unit, get back in time to help with the delivery of a stack of new wallboard. Their 23-year-old son Allen, who is severely developmentally disabled, was watching television. It was already a familiar routine. “It feels like our life is somewhere between, ‘Where do I start?’ and ‘Why isn’t this getting done?’” Mr. Swanson said.

There was a lot keeping the Swansons in Canyon Gate. They had paid off the house, purchased in 2006 for $225,000, just a few months before the flood. That freed them from a monthly mortgage. The home was close to their younger son Nick’s school and in a neighborhood they loved, and they had adapted the space to suit Allen’s disabilities — he has seizures, so they needed open areas where they could watch him from other parts of the house. In a hundred different ways, floods or no floods, this was their home.

And yet the case for leaving was clear. Two weeks before the floods, Mr. Swanson had quit his job as a security guard, with the intention of looking for work without so many late hours. The Swansons had some savings, but the money was meant to pay for Nick, 17, a high school junior, to attend college. With only one income, there was little money left over for repairs and renovations that would cost upward of $60,000.

Hanging over the entire process was the knowledge that a similar — or even worse — flood could hit again, possibly even as soon as the next hurricane season. “I am pretty sure we would not have moved into this house if we knew,” Ms. Swanson said.

Hugh Durlam knew he was staying. As a 13-year resident and former homeowners association board member, Mr. Durlam was completely invested in Canyon Gate. But he wanted to know what happened to others in the neighborhood. So on the Canyon Gate Facebook page he administers, he recently posted a survey asking homeowners if renovations were completed or close to completion, if they were still rebuilding, or if they had not yet started.

Of the 202 responses, all but two were involved in some kind of renovation.

“This is going to be a brand-new 20-year-old community. It’s worth saving,” said Mr. Durlam, who works for a Houston engineering firm. He supports a plan to deepen the reservoir and build a levee to protect the neighborhood, he said, “something that should have been done a long time ago.”

Christina Raena Micu isn’t certain about what to do next. When Harvey hit, she anxiously watched television footage of the storm from a Dallas hotel room, where she had taken shelter with her husband and two of her three children. Her 20-year-old son had stayed behind, sending dispatches as the waters invaded their neighborhood, before finally evacuating in chest-deep water with only a backpack.

Inside Ms. Micu’s home, everything on the first floor was submerged within or floating atop a couple of feet of muddy water. When she returned from Dallas, she rushed to her bedroom hoping her collection of childhood photos had somehow survived. She had left the photo albums in a pile on the carpeted floor with plans to one day organize them on a bookshelf. They were stuck together, the images swirled into watercolor blurs, too damaged to save. But what she saw next was more immediately concerning: mold.

“I have a 5-year-old son with asthma who has already been hospitalized once for it,” she said. “I can’t just move back in. It’s much more complicated than that for me.”

After she moved her family into an apartment about 10 minutes away, signing a one-year lease with some financial assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Ms. Micu, a real estate investor, embarked on a monthslong renovation of her flood-soaked home, ripping out the floors and walls and repeatedly treating the house with mold bombs, foggers and air purifiers.

Almost every day, Ms. Micu weighed her choices. Some days, she was sure she would stay. The house was in a safe neighborhood, roomy with a swing set in the backyard. Before the storm, she was even planning an addition. Other days, she knew moving was her only choice. Both options were expensive. Selling meant taking a big hit: She paid $183,000 for the house six years ago and figured it was not worth much more than half of that now. But for as long as they lived in their temporary apartment, she was paying rent and a mortgage. FEMA gave her about $16,000, but the renovation bids were all around $70,000.

By the time the four-bedroom house passed a mold test in February, Ms. Micu was thinking that she might split the difference. Move her family elsewhere, but keep the house as a rental. “With my son’s immune system, I can’t have a situation where the mold is a trigger,” said Ms. Micu, a Houston native whose parents are Filipino immigrants. “I can’t take the chance.”

Something else was nagging Ms. Micu. She wondered how the subdivisions could have been built in a reservoir. And if they had to be sacrificed, shouldn’t the homeowners be compensated?

“This pushed our lives in another path,” she said. “How could we have known that we would return from Dallas and practically have to start over?”

The questions are what pushed her to look for a law firm. In September, she became one of the lead plaintiffs in a federal class-action suit against the Army Corps of Engineers.

“Harvey took away my photo album with pictures from every year of my life. It took so many things. It took the purse that my husband bought me as a gift. He spent three months looking for it,” she said.

“Harvey took away my sense of security, but so did the Army Corps of Engineers. What happened to us was wrong.”

When Paulette Delynn Archer, 70, greets a visitor in the doorway of her one-story brick house, she is framed by large picture windows that reveal the emptiness inside, where flooding and renovation have left little more than wood studs between the front door and the back patio.

“Come in, let me show you the house,” Ms. Archer offered in a cheery voice that soon gave way to silence. “Well, this used to be my house. Now it’s just a shell.”

Ms. Archer had once delighted in having guests over to see her four-bedroom home, where everything was the color of soft gold or pumpkin. This is where she had raised her only son, where her husband and mother spent their final days, where she had planned to spend her remaining days. But the four feet of mud and water that gushed through the house had demanded something radically different.

Two decades ago, Ms. Archer and her husband had paid roughly $200,000 for the house and watched it appreciate to more than $300,000. She said it would cost well over $100,000 to renovate the house and her FEMA grant would only cover a small fraction.

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transcript

How a Community Was Sacrificed to Save Houston

After Hurricane Harvey hit, these communities, built in what is called a flood pool, were sacrificed to save the city of Houston. We followed homeowners as they decided whether to cut their losses or rebuild, knowing it could happen again.

“We never anticipated having that sense of community on our doorstep.” “It was a hell of a good home, and we could afford it.” “Hopefully, our authorities can win our trust back again.” “Harvey took away from us our normal everyday life that you go through.” “Nobody anticipated it, so very few people really were prepared for it.” “Our community is right next to the reservoir. And they knew that, because they designed it.” “The nation’s fourth largest city, Houston, bracing for catastrophic flooding.” “The Army Corps of Engineers say in order to save homes downstream, it has to flood others upstream. That includes homes in Cinco Ranch and Bear Creek.” “3,000 homes got water behind the Barker Reservoir. Harvey didn’t flood them — the federal government flooded them.” “A lot of people think that they did that to save downtown, and I understand. But now we need help. We need help, too.” “What do we do next? How do we solve this thing without going dead broke?” “Much of our developed area on the east side of the county is protected by levees. The reservoir was backing up like a bathtub filling. We didn’t know exactly how high it would rise.” “This storm, 38 inches of rain in about a three day period, is probably almost total for the year what we normally get. Had those flows gone around the ends of the dam, they would have caused a great deal of flooding. So we had to make a tough decision.” “We have opened the gates, and we are actually flooding homes downstream now.” “This area is designed to hold that water if necessary. It’s unfortunate for you all, but that’s how it’s designed.” “Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Already has — already has mold growing. God. Almost no one around here has flood insurance. It’s not supposed to be an area that floods.” “Everything I own was in that house. I lost my wife about a year ago. And so there was a lot of emotion, and a lot of memories that I have to not think about.” “As we were driving into the neighborhood, Lily kept saying, it feels so weird to be here. We were trying to kind of prepare her that it’s going to look a lot different.” “And it’s like it’s a huge stupid beach. It’s usually like there’s so much grass. All the kids running around. It just feels weird seeing it like this, because all this trash is never here. It was like so high and scary. Like, first the water was up to here. Then it started getting into the houses. See this like Post-it note thing? My mom told me it was like, make sure there’s no dead bodies.” “He has been so obsessed with looking through flooding pictures. At least five times a day, he wants to look and see the house when it first flooded and the picture of Lily’s school.” “So the grant is a max of $33,300, and you can only get that once you’ve been inspected. We have almost 800,000 registrations in the state of Texas alone. Right now it’s just a waiting process, because it does take while for them to get to you.” “So what’s going to happen is, don’t freak out, you’re going to get a denial letter from FEMA, because you have a homeowners. But when you get your reward letter from your homeowners, telling how much they’re paying you, you’re going bring a copy of that letter to me. And I’m going to fax it to Washington, and then FEMA picks back up what the homeowners didn’t pay.” “O.K. But then — O.K.” “O.K.?” “Now what do I do for wheels?” “For that? I don’t know.” “I mean, you’re it? I don’t qualify?” “It’s left up to your inspector. It ain’t left up to me.” “How about accommodations? My daughter is selling her house. I’m out of — I have no place to go.” “I’ll put that in your notes.” “Homes were substantially destroyed, and I think you really have to make a serious decisions as to whether you want to rebuild. If I lived behind that reservoir and my house had four or four and a half feet of water in it, I don’t think I could rebuild. I wouldn’t want to rebuild.” “We’re paying the mortgage and the rent. We do get a low interest loan from FEMA, and so that helps a lot. We live with my daughter and her kids. We want my grandkids to grow up here.” “There were lots of sleepless nights — where was the money going to come from in order to rebuild our house? But we did receive a small grant from FEMA, and the church was able to cover three months worth of rent. I think we both just sat there and cried. It was so overwhelming. We were so fortunate. None of my other neighbors are in a similar situation.” “So the hurricane hit, right? Now, it’s react time. What are you going to do with your property? The longer you hesitate, the more damage that’s going to accrue on your house. As horrible as it’s been, everybody has been pretty upbeat and happy. Hello, sir. Not everybody, but most people. Hey, how are you doing, sir? I’m James. I’m James Smith with Keller Williams Energy Corridor Realty. How are you? I was just wondering how everybody is doing?” “About in the same shape. Waiting on FEMA, most of us. And S.B.A. loans.” “Got you.” “Just in a holding pattern until we can repair our homes.” “If you give me a call, I can give you some information on the proper people that come in and get in contact with. All my advice is going to be at no cost to you. And if I ever can help you, just give me a call.” “Appreciate it.” “No problem. I’ll let you get back to work, sir. So there’s a lot of properties that actually went into foreclosure. A lot of those now the bank owns. Let’s go. You be careful. Now, they’re going to be totally renovated with all the new items on it. Because there’s too many people selling — that’s going to create a buyer’s market. They can kind of set the price.” “I’m 87. I’m not going to spend the last years of my life building back a house that I ain’t going to go and live in. I’m going to sell it. We just don’t talk about what has gone and will never be back.” “There’s Dad. Look at my beautiful mother.” “See, all that furniture sitting out on the lawn was 62 years of accumulation, of memories. And, that hurts.” “For a while there, it looked like a ghost town in here. I’d say, like a quarter of the community is back. All right. We still have a lot of little things that have to be done, but we’re home.” “It feels exciting to be back in the house, and a little bit overwhelming.” “Where are all the flooded pictures?” “You want to see all the flooded pictures?” “Yeah. Where are they?” “Remember when our house looked like that?” “Yeah. I want to see the X on it.” “Oh, I don’t think I took a picture of the X. You know what? Maybe I did. Hold on, let me look. There it is.” “I love to move back in.” “We already moved back in, didn’t we? So did we get to take that down?” “Yeah.” “Yeah, it’s not there anymore, is it? I can’t describe how happy I am to be back in my own house. I do you have a sense of guilt that comes along with it. There’s a lot of people that haven’t even had their FEMA visits.” “For my own sanity, I got to stay positive and moving forward.” “Our community never should have been developed. It’s hundreds and hundreds of houses. Now we are proof that we need better regulations.”

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After Hurricane Harvey hit, these communities, built in what is called a flood pool, were sacrificed to save the city of Houston. We followed homeowners as they decided whether to cut their losses or rebuild, knowing it could happen again.CreditCredit...Todd Heisler/The New York Times

In the mornings, while staying at a La Quinta Inn, Ms. Archer would make lists in a blue three-ring binder of items lost, mostly items that came to her in her dreams. “I finally stopped trying to sum up my entire life. It was just too stressful. But that list told me that as much as I loved my house, there was no way out of this but to sell,” said Ms. Archer, who spent the first part of her career as a flight attendant then became a police officer for the Port of Houston Authority. “I couldn’t get a loan at my age and with no job. How would I pay it back?”

She had lost everything once before, as a teenager in a house fire. The crushing loss felt the same; the inability to recover felt far different.

Like other homeowners, Ms. Archer said she had no idea the house was built in a reservoir. She was told over and over that she did not need flood insurance, she said. Two or three times she purchased it anyway and then let the policy expire.

Three years earlier, she had taken out a reverse mortgage, which allows homeowners over 62 years old to convert equity into cash. After the flood, her house was worth less than the loan balance. It left her in a terrible bind. “I am sitting here thinking that I am not going to be able to get out of this situation,” she said.

She eventually negotiated with the lender to offer the house as a short sale for $125,000. Earlier this month, Ms. Archer closed on the sale and walked away for good. Now fearful of floods and the sound of hard rain, she plans to move near a nephew in Dallas, where she will re-enter the job market 10 years after her retirement.

“There is no way I could have imagined I would be starting over at this point in my life,” she said, then sighed deeply. “I know everything will be O.K. Eventually.”

On a fall afternoon, as they were in the garage sorting the few salvageable pieces — the roar of trucks carting debris in the distance — Mr. Swanson turned to Ms. Swanson, his wife of 24 years.

“I don’t want to leave. Do you?” he blurted out. Ms. Swanson shook her head. Neither did she.

For the Swansons, rebuilding was the only choice. They knew it would be hard, but this was home.

Instead of returning to work, Mr. Swanson pitched in on the repairs. “For now,” Ms. Swanson said, “it make more sense for Jeff to be home helping with the house rather than to be on a job making $12 an hour.” The couple also bought flood insurance.

In October, they received a FEMA grant for about $10,300, part of the more than $91 million the federal agency distributed in Fort Bend County. They also received donated kitchen countertops and cabinets through a state program and a $25,000 grant from Fort Bend Recovers, a local public-private disaster assistance coalition, for construction costs. There was still a gap, but it was manageable, and less than the cost of a new house and mortgage.

The numbers made sense, but Mr. Swanson said he also had a more personal reason for staying.

“It took me this many years to finally become a Texan,” he said. “Harvey is not going to run us away.”

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