Friday, October 10, 2014

Disaster resilience and affordable housing

by Ethan Handelman, National Housing Conference

As a speaker and participant at the Northeast Risk and Resilience Leadership Forum, I learned a lot about how communities can mitigate the risks of storms, flooding, and other disasters by becoming more resilient. As one of just a few attendees with an affordable housing perspective, I described some of the ways lack of wealth in communities and households complicates planning for disasters:
  •  Weaker physical infrastructure to start makes communities more vulnerable.
  • More rental housing often means greater density of residents with fewer household resources to draw on in the event of disaster.
  • Affordable rental properties have tight capital budgets and even tighter operating budgets, which makes it hard to include resiliency features without dedicated funding.
  • Language barriers can complicate efforts to distribute warnings, engage community support for disaster preparedness and recruit participants into programs.
  • Under-resourced local governments will be less able to request disaster aid or resilience funding than wealthier communities.
  • Human need in poorer areas may be under-counted in data used to distribute aid.
Wealth is a barrier to resiliency at a household level, too. The fixed costs of mitigation, be they minor updates like storm shutters or major ones like elevation, loom larger for a household in a $60,000 home than for one in a $600,000 home. I urged the audience of environmentalists, policy makers, scientists, insurance industry experts and others to evaluate any proposed resiliency policy from the perspective of their child’s elementary school teacher, the janitor in their office building or the cashier at their grocery store. If one of the 18 million families paying more than half their income for housing has to choose between buying school clothes for their kids or installing storm shutters, we can predict their choice.

There are certainly reasons to be optimistic for improved resiliency. HUD’s new National Disaster Resilience Competition will put $1 billion to work in communities around the country planning and implementing innovative resilience work to help communities protect themselves from future disasters even as they recover from recent damage. And there is growing awareness that more resilient communities can save the federal government money in the long term while improving quality of life for residents. We just need to be sure that people of all incomes can be a part of these resilient communities. Based on the supportive reaction I received from so many participants at the forum, we’re on the right track.

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