Houston Matters

Sarnoff: Letters To Flooded Homeowners Could Leave Them Without ‘Many Options’

The Houston Chronicle’s Nancy Sarnoff says hundreds of homeowners will soon be getting letters if their properties have been defined as “substantially damaged,” meaning many might have to elevate their homes — or leave if they can’t afford to.

Elevated Home
After privately funding his own elevation, Meyerland homeowner Drew Shefman (left) said his home was lifted to nearly 5 feet… one day before Harvey hit.

The City of Houston is poised to send hundreds of letters informing homeowners of the repairs they’ll need to make after Harvey. For many, this could mean they’ll have to elevate their homes — or move if they can’t afford to do so.

To learn more, Houston Matters host Craig Cohen spoke with Nancy Sarnoff. She covers real estate for the Houston Chronicle.

Sarnoff says the people who will receive these letters are those who were flooded during Harvey, are located in the flood plain, and whose property has been declared “substantially damaged.”

How Substantial Is Substantial?

Sarnoff says there is a technical definition that determines who fits this billing — that’s when repairs to a damaged property are more than 50 percent of its value.

“To rebuild or to renovate, you’re going to have to do that to the city’s current building code,” she said. 

For many, this could mean they’ll have to elevate their homes — if they can afford to.

How Determination Is Made

Sarnoff said she’s still learning how the designation process works. She says the city is working with FEMA to determine which properties might fit the billing, but the City of Houston makes its own determination based on information from FEMA, property values, and other sources. The city makes the final determination — not FEMA, she said.

Sarnoff said she’s still trying to narrow down what exactly FEMA is providing the city. The agency is not providing the city with people’s insurance settlement amounts.

For those who have flood insurance, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll get enough money to raise their house. So, what are their options?

“At this point it doesn’t seem like there are many options — or there are any other options — other than selling the house and maybe having to go somewhere else,” Sarnoff said.

Appeals Process

Sarnoff said homeowners who get one of these letters can appeal the designation through the city’s Floodplain Management Office.

One option is to get a private appraiser to come out and appraise a property regarding its condition before the storm — not what the Harris County Appraisal District information might’ve indicated.

More Letters Coming

Sarnoff said this is only the first batch of letters the city is sending out, during which 1,611 letters will be mailed to homeowners. However, the city has determined 30,523 structures in Houston are located in the flood plain — meaning many more letters could be coming.

MORE: Many Houstonians Seek Home Elevation, After Repetitive Flooding

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Michael Hagerty

Michael Hagerty

Senior Producer, Houston Matters

Michael Hagerty is the Senior Producer for Houston Matters. He has a degree in journalism from Abilene Christian University and has served as news director for NPR and PBS stations around Texas and The West, including: KUNR-FM in Reno, Nev.; KNPB-TV in Reno, Nev.; and KWBU-TV/FM in Waco, Texas. He...

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