MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
In Houston, the price of rent is soaring. That's because so many people need a place to live after the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey. And the tight rental market is particularly tough for lower-income families, as NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: In this narrow conference room at San Pablo Episcopal Church in southeast Houston, a few volunteers hunch over laptops as they try to help neighborhood residents resolve problems with their landlords or find new places to live. Among them is 24-year-old Ashley (ph).
ASHLEY: I have two kids. I'm married. And I live with my mom right now since my townhome is currently not able to be lived in.
SCHAPER: Ashley asked that we not use her last name because she fears she would be evicted by her landlord, who required her to pay $850 in rent September 1, even though, days earlier, the three-bedroom townhouse flooded with two feet of water. The carpets were pulled up and some of the sheetrock torn out. But Ashley says the place is still full of mold.
ASHLEY: The wood is all black, and the sheetrock is just full of green mold. And some of the sheetrock even broke off from the water. It was still soggy and stuff.
SCHAPER: Ashley says she won't live in the townhome until it's fixed up right, but finding a new place would be difficult, as rents are on the rise.
ASHLEY: They're pretty pricey. I've heard about $1,000, $1,200 for a two bedroom.
SCHAPER: Ashley has applied for FEMA assistance but hasn't heard back yet. In the meantime, she and her family will stay with her mom.
ED GOMEZ: We're seeing a lot of people couch-surfing right now.
SCHAPER: Reverend Ed Gomez is the vicar of St. Paul/San Pablo Episcopal Church. He says the brunt of the storm felt disproportionately hard on Houston's lower-income and undocumented immigrant communities.
GOMEZ: A lot of these people are facing incredible stressors - not just from the loss of property, jobs - but now being, by landlords, harassed, muscled, intimidated that they'll be deported, that they'll call ICE.
SCHAPER: Gomez believes some landlords are trying to evict tenants and flip the units to take advantage of rising rents after the storm.
GOMEZ: They know that there's a lot of housing shortage. They know that they can get someone in there tomorrow.
SCHAPER: Under Texas law, tenants still must pay rent even if their home is damaged. But if it's uninhabitable, leases can be terminated in writing by either the tenant or the landlord. Volunteers and city officials are trying to broker agreements with owners to repair damaged units and to waive late-payment fees. A spokesman for the Houston Apartment Association says the overwhelming majority of landlords are bending over backwards to accommodate their tenants. Nonetheless, Houston Housing Director Tom McCasland has this warning for landlords.
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TOM MCCASLAND: For those who are abusing their tenants, for those who are treating tenants unfairly, the full force of the city's power is going to be zeroed in on you.
SCHAPER: But McCasland says the city and the apartment association are working together to help find rental housing for those who are displaced. David Schaper, NPR News, Houston.
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