If Who's On First, What's On Second: A Post-Ike Diary Documenting One Family's Attempt To Get Past First Base With The Houston Housing Authority
In the 1950s the famous comedy team of Abbott and Costello developed what is probably their most popular routine, "Who's on First." The premise of the comedy routine is that Bud Abbott is identifying the players of a make believe baseball team for Lou Costello, but the team players names, for example "Who" is the name of the person playing first base and "What" is the name of the person playing second base, come off as non-responsive answers to Costello's questions.
The routine went something like this:
Costello: "Do you know the name of the first baseman?" Abbott: "Who's on first." Costello: "That's what I'm asking you, what is the name of the person who plays first base? Abbott: "No, What's on second. Who's on first."
On September 13, 2008, my house, along with thousands of others, was heavily damaged when Hurricane Ike swept through the Gulf of Mexico with the surge of a category four storm and landed in Galveston Bay. I spent the better part of the following year working with FEMA and the Houston Housing Authority (HHA) while my home was being rebuilt.
During this period there were times when I felt as hopelessly lost in a bureaucratic system filled with a comedy of errors as Costello did in trying to interpret Abbott's explanation of the fictional team roster. In my attempts to navigate the process of acquiring transitional housing, more often than not, like Costello, I found myself back on first base.
I've used America's favorite past time as an analogy to describe the sequence of events that took place in my own version of "Who's on First." In an attempt to stay in character, and protect the innocent, I have replaced the given names of the HHA staff with those used by Abbott and Costello.
September 13 -- Hurricane Ike hits Galveston Bay. The song "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" plays in the background as the announcer takes the mic.
September 22 -- FEMA/HHA establish the Disaster Housing Assistance Program-Ike (DHAP-Ike) to help citizens displaced by Ike find temporary housing. The players enter the field.
September 23-October 30 -- Worked with FEMA/HHA to qualify for temporary housing. The Governor throws out the ceremonial first pitch. Play ball.
November 3 -- Went to HHA office and met with occupancy technician (OT); given paperwork to start the process. Batter up. HHA has the home team advantage.
November 4-10 -- Tried to find housing. Was told by apartment locators that apartment complexes in the Clear Lake area refused to work with HHA because it was too difficult to get paid. Strike one.
November 10 -- A colleague at the university offered to let us rent her townhouse. She agreed to work with HHA despite warnings about delayed payments. It's a hit.
November 11 -- Mailed the paperwork to OT at HHA. Faxed over copies as a backup. Batter runs to first base.
November 23 -- Discovered the OT had not received the fax or the mailed copies of paperwork. Held at first.
November 24 -- Remailed copies of paperwork. Told to provide additional paperwork to HHA person who processes the leases. New batter is in the box.
November 26 -- Mailed/faxed new paperwork. Batter bunts and races to first.
December 4 -- Discovered that the paperwork never reached the person who processes the leases at HHA. What! First-base runner heads for second but is caught in a rundown between first and second basemen. Was able to get lease processor on the telephone -- no easy task. This time I was provided with an e-mail address -- an even harder task. I scanned all of the paperwork and sent it via e-mail. First baseman drops the ball and runner steals second.
December 18 -- Met HHA inspector at the prospective rental property. The property passed inspection. I was assured that once the paperwork was processed, I would be approved to move in. How long to process the paperwork? I Don't Know is playing third base; runners are holding at first and second.
December 20 -- Called HHA to try and get permission to move in time for Christmas. Could not reach OT. Was told by two different Option 3 Operators that I could move in now because I had passed the inspection. Skeptical about making the move without official permission from OT, I called the DHAP-Ike number and learned I had been reassigned to a new OT. Left messages for OT #2, but could not get her on the phone until Dec. 22. Given approval to move in Jan. 1, 2009. Batter strikes out swinging at a slider in the dirt. Second base runner advances to third hoping for a hitter to bring him home.
January 1 -- Moved into approved temporary housing. It's a long drive to right field. Runners slide into home and they SCORE!
January 28 -- Landlord called to say she has still not been paid for January rent. Tried to call OT #2 to find out why. Left messages. Phone calls not returned. Called DHAP-Ike number, learned I had been reassigned, again, to a new OT. Swing batter, batter.
February 1 -- Called OT #3 to find out why my landlord had not been authorized payment through corporate lodging. She couldn't find my paperwork. Asked to meet with her in person to bring paperwork and insure it would not get lost. Relief pitcher can't find the zone and walks batter to first.
February 5 -- Met with OT #3 to deliver paperwork. She said she would have it fast tracked. It's a fly ball and the crowd goes wild. Before I left the parking lot, a telephone call came through asking me to phone the HHA person responsible for appraising/approving leases. Left fielder catches the ball at the warning track and throws the runner out at second. Instead of returning the phone call, I went back inside. Appraiser was sorry, but we would have to move out and find new temporary housing because she couldn't verify what a comparable townhouse in the area rents for using the Houston Area Rental (HAR) website. Foul Ball! HAR only lists properties that are available to rent. Because Hurricane Ike displaced so many people in our area, most of the available rent property was taken. This meant HAR had very few listings available for our area. To find out what comparable property in the area rents for would require individual phone calls to individual properties. A more time consuming task to be sure, but hardly more time consuming than moving an entire family out of housing it had taken more than three months to acquire and asking them to start the process over. More importantly, why was HHA processing us for appraisal after we'd already been approved to move in?! As a consolation, she said this doesn't usually happen after a family had been living in a place for a month. It usually happened after they had only been in for a day or two. This was the moment of a major league meltdown -- the point where the team manager finally loses it with the umpire during an obviously rigged game. The manager and umpire exchange heated words; manager kicks dirt on the ump's shoes. The lease appraiser agreed to allow me to work with her to find comparable rental property to use as a means of appraisal. Spent the rest of the afternoon tracking down rent rates. E-mailed them back to HHA. Received reply e-mail that she had also been able to track down rates for comparable housing. Batter is back in the box.
February 6 -- HHA said we can stay in the townhouse. Batter hits the ball out of the field. March 5 - HHA Corporate Lodging pays landlord rent. HOMERUN!
March 7 -- Contacted by a new person at HHA who was checking in to see if I, as a Hurricane Ike victim, wanted to apply for temporary housing assistance. "Who's on first!?" In the months following, there were other similar incidences. It wasn't until June 2009 that we were resettled in our own home.
Abbott and Costello's routine to identify "Who's on First" ends with a stumped Costello finally blurting out, "I don't know, and I don't care." I'm lucky to live in a country that does care. In the last 10 years alone Houston has dealt with direct hits from Hurricane Ike and tropical storm Allison as well as refugees from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav. So, how is it a crises rescue system experienced with so many disasters operates so inefficiently and, more importantly, how can we make it better?
As it happens, I'm in a position to offer some suggestions:
• The appraisal step should clearly take place prior to approval, not after. No one should ever be placed in a home and then be told to move back out - whether one month or one day after finally getting settled.
• Electronic file sharing would help keep paper files from getting passed around from one person to the next. No wonder my files kept getting lost.
• And speaking of getting lost in the system, a family should have the same occupancy technician/caseworker without being passed around like so many file folders.