May 20, 2019

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

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

Starting Over

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.


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.

By LESLYE DAVIS, RAY WHITEHOUSE and ERIC MAIERSON on Publish Date March 19, 2018.

Photo by Todd Heisler/The New York Times.

Watch in Times Video »

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.

Interactive Graphic

How One Houston Suburb Ended Up in a Reservoir

Most residents whose homes flooded during Hurricane Harvey had no clue that their gated community was built in an area prone to such damage in extreme storms.

OPEN Interactive Graphic

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.”

Staying Home

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.

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