After a powerful derecho storm May 16 caused power outages for more than 1 million people in Greater Houston, city officials have embarked on an effort to analyze a variety of apartment buildings that cater to seniors and individuals with disabilities to make sure they are up to code and have plans in place for the next emergency.

The big picture

During a May 19 press conference after the storm, Houston Mayor John Whitmire called out several facilities where he said residents were left without services. He said the city would work to identify facilities and hold them accountable.

Whitmire specifically named Independence Hall, an affordable housing complex in North Houston, where he said city officials encountered residents May 19 without power and food, some of whom were dehydrated and needed medical care.

Whitmire also mentioned Heights Tower, an independent living facility in the Heights, as a place that lost power and where he said residents were "without services."

Linda Holder—executive director of management with The Housing Corporation, the nonprofit that runs Heights Tower—said two employees live on site and were working to take care of residents during the storm. The company's corporate facilities director also came to the property over the weekend to help serve food and check in on residents, she said.

Steven David, Whitmire's deputy chief of staff, is now leading the process of identifying senior facilities and coming up with a plan for how to make sure residents are safe during the next storm. In a June 13 interview, David said he believed the situation at Heights Tower was not caused by neglect but more by the challenging nature of the storm that manifested with little warning.

"I think they would’ve done a better job with more notice," he said. "I don’t think it’s neglect, but they have to do better. What we’re looking for are partners; we're not expecting perfection."

What they're saying

Unlike assisted living facilities, independent living facilities such as Heights Tower are not required to provide food or medical services to residents.

When Heights Tower lost power late May 16, Holder said generators at the site kicked on. While the generators are meant to keep the elevator, emergency lights and water systems powered, they cannot run electricity to apartments, she said. Holder said officials are planning to upgrade their generators so they can keep common areas cool, and she hopes to have the upgrades in place within the next month.

Holder said local organizations and churches heard about the outage, and reached out to provide food and water, with crucial assistance also coming from U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Houston. Nonprofit officials also bought three small standalone air conditions to make a cooling station in a common area May 18 until power was restored.

Holder said Heights Tower has procedures in place to handle emergencies, but the plan is not in writing, a process officials are taking on now by hiring a professional to craft such a document.

"I have been through many crisis situations with all the properties we manage, but the reality is it does need to be on pieces of paper rather than in my head," she said. "I believe climate change is underway, and I think we're going to have more storms. That's another reason why I am having a professional write a comprehensive plan."

Since the storm, Holder said The Housing Corporation has also rented a small trailer being kept on the property that is stocked with water and MREs—or Meals, Ready To Eat—food used by the U.S. military that is easy to store and transport.

The details

The city of Houston has a Multifamily Habitability and Investigations group that was created to monitor multifamily facilities in the city and address inhospitable conditions. There's a code inspection process on the front end of a new facility opening, but David said the system is otherwise reactive, relying on tips submitted by residents when a facility needs to be investigated.

Following the storm, David said he sat down with city's planning department to come up with a set of criteria and a plan for how the city could evaluate certain multifamily facilities across both the city and Harris County.

To start, officials looked at parcel data hosted by the Harris Central Appraisal District, which assigns codes to every land parcel in the county based on building type.

Independent and assisted living facilities are regulated by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which David said has been cooperative in helping the city with its analysis. However, some facilities do not register with the state even when they market to those demographics, David said.

"So we can’t just rely on voluntary registration at the state level," he said. "We need to be more creative in how we find these places."

To catch those facilities that aren't registered but still cater to senior residents, city officials used Google API to identify businesses by name, looking for multifamily buildings with names that include words such as “independent,” “senior,” “disabled” or "assisted."

As of mid-June David said the city was about 80% of the way through its analysis, estimating there are about 800 facilities across Harris County that meet those parameters.

Moving forward

Next steps will involve officials with the city's emergency management and code compliance departments visiting facilities with two goals:
  • Make sure the facilities have suitable living conditions, and, if they don't, find out why and issue citations to bring them into compliance.
  • Make sure management has a plan for the next disaster or power outage, including plans for using generators, and making sure residents have water, food and ice.
"Emergency management [officials] are planners," David said. "We want them to take their planning expertise and share it with these property owners."

David also emphasized the need for action at the state level, particularly when it comes to closing loopholes that allow facilities to avoid regulation.

"The best way to avert [situations like those at] Heights Tower and Independence Hall is to be more communicative with managers of properties—lean on them to have a plan in place, a source of water and food," David said. "We can help them source it."

What readers should know

In the coming months, David said he hopes to be able to present the findings from the housing analysis to Houston City Council.

As that process plays out, David emphasized the importance of using the the State of Texas Emergency Assistance Registry. Anyone with a family member or friend who is medically fragile can have that person added to the registry. Houston is required by state law to call everyone on the list within 24 hours of a disaster hitting to make sure they have a plan in place and try to provide assistance when needed.