Wednesday, September 6, 2017

How the housing field can help Texas rebuild

by Chris Estes, National Housing Conference

Hurricane Harveys devastation has rightfully been the dominant national news story for more than a week. While other stories will eventually crowd out the recovery, Harvey will be the focus of the housing community and south Texas for the next several years.

I believe the major focus for HUD leadership and related agencies will be the housing and planning issues in Houston and surrounding communities. This will bring both challenges and opportunities. As we have seen in the past, funding for emergency relief and recovery can get attention and support from Congress, though not always easily, but this new spending will create even greater pressure to balance the budget through cuts to non-defense discretionary funding.

The recovery in south Texas and Louisiana will be years in the making and will bring many issues into the mix. With flood insurance covering only an estimated 25 percent of flooded homes, asking people to rebuild with loans alone will be politically difficult. Toxic water, mold and mildew have rendered most all of the houses touched by water in need of a complete, and costly, rebuild.

How, whether and where to rebuild will be complicated issues to manage. The Houston area has done little to regulate building codes or manage its flood plain. The National Flood Insurance Program must be renewed by the end of September. Harvey’s aftermath will necessarily inform the debate on the federal role in flood: paying to rebuild again and again after floods compared to funding mitigation and improved storm management systems and creating incentives to rebuild outside of flood plains. As I have mentioned many times, NHC has taken an active role in the SmarterSafer Coalition, and we will continue to advocate for the needs of affordable housing residents and the preservation of affordable housing in the rebuilding process.

While much attention will be on the challenge homeowners face in rebuilding, renters face significant challenges as well. It is unclear at this point how much public housing and rental housing subsidized by the Housing Credit and project-based Section 8 was damaged, how many voucher holders were displaced, or how many unassisted renters were displaced. Ample rental stock and relatively low vacancy rates, plus FEMA vouchers, will help in the short run, but it is unclear where people will live in the long run and if there will be enough vouchers to meet what is sure to be increased need. Coordinated support and case management will be essential for the many families who experienced total loss to return to economic stability.

The housing community's challenge will be to work together to protect important affordable housing programs in the budget and regulatory environments, by framing housing programs in a disaster relief context and sharing lessons learned from Hurricanes Rita and Katrina and Superstorm Sandy.

NHC and our Leadership Circle members will meet with HUD Sec. Ben Carson this week to discuss how we can be helpful. I also hope we can bring the full affordable housing and community development continuum together in a coordinated and collaborative manner. It will be easy for folks to jump forward at the beginning but with a recovery that is going to take years, we need everyone at the table helping HUD, the state of Texas, the city of Houston, and other jurisdictions see the long-term issues as well.

There will no doubt be many challenges related to effective rebuilding, preservation, prevention of displacement and protection of low- and moderate-income households. With all of us working together over the long haul, we can both improve these communities and strengthen the housing field for the future.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Improving housing policy after Hurricane Harvey

by Ethan Handelman, National Housing Conference

With all eyes on Texas and Louisiana in the path of Hurricane Harvey, most of us are focused on victims’ critical need for safety, food and shelter. As housers, we should also be thinking about what comes next, building on the lessons learned in past floods. In three policy areas, we know ways to build better and prepare smarter as we rebuild homes, mitigate future damage and insurance against flood risk. NHC and our members are working in all of these areas to improve policy.

Rebuild for the future. As recovery help moves past emergency needs to rebuilding, we should make sure it goes to strengthen communities for the long term. I learned just last week about a NeighborWorks® America affiliate, The Community Development Corporation of Brownsville, which has a RAPIDO disaster recovery housing pilot that creates temporary housing designed to be more resilient to floods and able to expand as households grow. The post-Katrina recovery efforts of NHC Gold member Enterprise Community Partners, a 2014 Housing Visionary Award honoree, and many others gives us much experience to draw on in the months to come. If past federal responses are any guide, we should expect recovery funds to use proven tools like Low Income Housing Tax Credits and Community Development Block Grants, both of which are well-suited to create long-term community assets.

Mitigate future damage. Investing now to protect homes, business and communities against future floods will pay off. Mitigation can mean using natural features to absorb storm water, improving land use policy to require safer buildings or making targeted physical improvements. Communities at risk should invest in mitigation, and the federal government should help, especially in communities with many low-income individuals.

Reform flood insurance. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) expires next month, and Congress has only started the process of reforming it. There are draft bills in both chambers, with a good bit of daylight visible between them. For the program to do what it must to manage risk and signal to property owners how to protect themselves, it needs to change, likely with more private insurance participation. More accurate maps, rates that reflect risk, incentives to mitigate risk and especially targeted help for those who need it will make us all safer. NHC and our coalition partners, at SmarterSafer, including newest member Habitat for Humanity International, have been working with members of both parties to encourage timely and effective NFIP reform and reauthorization.

Housers will play a big part in leading the rebuilding efforts after this disaster. Let’s bring our best thinking and strongest efforts, so that we are all safer when the next storms strike.