Homeowner stuck with $39K water bill for home damaged during Hurricane Harvey

KPRC ‘DRAINED’ Investigation into Houston water bill issues

Hurricane Harvey devastated many families who were unable to rebuild after the storm. Hundreds of victims applied for federal funds to help them recover. But one of those victims called KPRC 2 Investigates when she said the Houston water department was standing between her and the help she desperately needed.

KPRC 2 'DRAINED' Investigation into water bill issues. (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

Since we started our ‘DRAINED’ Investigation into the Houston water department last year we have shown you some very high bills, but this is the highest.

Homeowner still working to recover from Hurricane Harvey

Julia Benjamin has never fully recovered after Hurricane Harvey flooded her Northeast side home. Mold, foundation issues, and leaks have kept her from moving back.

“I miss living in my house. This is where I pretty much raised my kids in this house,” said Benjamin.

Now six years later federal Hurricane Harvey funds are available. One thing is holding up the help.

“They cannot work on this house because of the water bill.”

The water bill she’s talking about is more than $39,000. Water from a home she wasn’t even living in.

“That was full of water,” shows Benjamin. “It was clear water coming from the meter box.”

In April 2020, a lawn guy Benjamin hired to mow the property noticed standing water in her meter box. She called the Houston Water Department to report it immediately.

Homeowner called KPRC 2 Investigator Amy Davis after dealing with a water bill issue for years. A meter issue left her with a huge bill that stood in the way of getting federal Hurricane Harvey relief money she needed. (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

Shocking news during call to water department about meter leak

“And you know how you listen to that recorder? The recorder came on first and told me I owe $58,000 in water bills,” said Benjamin.

Old bills show the amount was actually $51,000. All Benjamin knew was it was a lot. The leak at her meter started six months earlier in October 2019. She lost 527,000 gallons of water that month alone. Hundreds of thousands of gallons more every month after. Benjamin wasn’t living in the home, but she did visit to check on the property. She said she never noticed a large amount of water or any water before April 2020.

She paid a plumber to fix it as soon as she discovered it and the city told her to apply for a leak adjustment for that big bill. Months later, she got a credit of $12,000.

“I still owe $38,000.”

The water department told her she could pay that monthly at $800 a month.

“I cannot pay no $800 a month on a $38,000 water bill which I think is not totally my fault,” she said.

Benjamin asked the city why they didn’t just shut off the water when they saw her meter was registering hundreds of thousands of gallons month after month.

“You’re saying, ‘If your bill was $300 and you hadn’t paid, they’d shut it off?’” Davis asked,

“They’d shut it off. I mean, why let it go for 3 or 4 months?” asked Benjamin. “The water company had the power to cut it off. They had that power to cut it off the first month, and they didn’t cut it off.”

The General Land Office told her with no running water here and the outstanding bill, it can’t move forward with building her a new home on this property. She worried they would move on to the next Harvey victim in line.

“It’s been a long, long road and I don’t want to start crying about it but it’s been a long road for me,” she said.

General Land Office quickly responds to help homeowner

KPRC 2 Investigator Amy Davis emailed the City of Houston first, then the General Land Office.

The General Land Office helps homeowner dealing with a huge water bill from Hurricane Harvey. KPRC 2 'DRAINED' Investigation gets answers about a huge water bill that was standing in the way of a homeowner getting federal funding she needed. (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

“We really do want to try to move mountains to make sure people are able to make that full recovery,” said Brittany Eck, General Land Office.

They came through in a big way.

“We were able to connect those dots and find those individuals that could be the most influential,” said Eck.

KPRC 2 'DRAINED' Investigation helps a homeowner dealing with a water bill issue. A huge outstanding bill prevented the homeowner from getting federal funding she needed for Hurricane Harvey flood recovery. (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

The GLO told KPRC 2 Investigates the city got BakerRipley to pay Benjamin’s outstanding bill. In less than two months Benjamin was making paint selections and picking appliances for her new home.

“I’ve been dealing with this ever since 2020 on my own trying to get everything solved, but I couldn’t do it,” said Benjamin.

“I feel like if you didn’t come to my rescue, Amy, nothing would have been done right now.”

Investigator Amy Davis worked for weeks trying to get answers on this case

Investigator Amy Davis emailed the Director of Public Works, The Director of Communications for the City of Houston, and the Communications Employees for Public Works on June 10th. They initially replied and told us they were looking into her account, but failed to follow up with any information. Davis nudged them, asking for answers to the original email on June 30, July 5 and again on September 15th.

Finally, a spokesperson for Public Works sent us this short statement:

“Houston Public Works applied City ordinance to resolve Ms. Benjamin’s account, and BakerRipley assisted in ensuring Ms. Benjamin would not be financially responsible for resolving this bill.”

After waiting 3 months to respond, the city still didn’t answer our questions about why they only initially on took $12,000 off Benjamin’s bill, leaving her in limbo for about 3 years.

Over the last two- or three-months delaying communication seems to be the city’s standard practice with our water bill stories. They require the customer to sign a disclosure form that gives the city permission to discuss accounts with our team, but then they seem to stall on a response.

**We know these issues are not isolated and there are bigger problems leaving hundreds of water customers ‘DRAINED’ and that is why we are continuing to investigate for you.

Related links mentioned in this article

How to fight a high water bill

BakerRipley - utility bill help

‘DRAINED’ Investigation - helpful articles on the most common water bill issues we see

Have you tried everything and still need help with your water bill? Email Amy Davis at Adavis@kprc.com or Producer Andrea Slaydon at Aslaydon@kprc.com and we will work to get you answers.

About the Authors:

Passionate consumer advocate, mom of 3, addicted to coffee, hairspray and pastries.

Award-winning TV producer and content creator. My goal as a journalist is to help people. Faith and family motivate me. Running keeps me sane.