A child makes his way through Tropical Storm Harvey’s floodwaters to check on neighbors in a Houston apartment complex.
More than a year after Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas—washing out homes in Houston, Galveston, and other cities on or near the Gulf of Mexico—many residents are still scrambling for decent accommodations. The category 4 storm, which made landfall on August 25, 2017, spawned at least 57 tornadoes, killed 68 people, and caused an estimated $125 billion in damage. The Houston area alone was inundated by some nine trillion gallons of water.
Among those hardest hit were the region’s low-income residents. Even before the storm, Texas had suffered from a severe shortage of affordable housing; some two million households were considered “financially burdened,” meaning they spent 30 percent or more of their income on housing. Harvey exacerbated that issue, wrecking nearly 2,000 Section 8 and public housing units across the state, at a cost of more than $25 million. One in six families receiving assistance from the Houston Housing Authority saw their home battered or destroyed. And when these displaced families sought other accommodations, they found skyrocketing rents across the city.
To make matters worse, Houston isn’t guaranteeing it can rebuild or replace all the subsidized housing it lost—nor is it required to. Despite assurances from local officials, the city’s ability to replace ruined dwellings hinges on adequate funding from the federal government. And the Lone Star State’s track record is hardly encouraging; it still hasn’t restored more than 1,200 units lost in 2008 to Hurricanes Ike and Dolly.
Meanwhile, the housing plight only worsens. “Since Hurricane Harvey, homelessness in Houston has gone up 15 percent,” says Maddie Sloan, who oversees fair housing and disaster recovery for the Austin-based advocacy group, Texas Appleseed. “Some people are living in uninhabitable dwellings or have been displaced an hour away from where they work,” she adds, often in rural areas with no mass transit.
The displacement of city residents has hit local businesses hard, says Sloan. She points out that it’s a particularly big loss for areas on the coast with tourist-driven economies and service industries that rely on low-wage workers. “If your workforce is displaced, your economy is not going to recover,” she says.
A woman, who became homeless after flooding caused by Harvey, sits on the second floor of the apartment complex where she has been sleeping in the storm’s aftermath.
Many contend that low-income communities are doubly vulnerable to disasters like Harvey. Among them is Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, an environmental group that advocates for low-income residents. Nelson points to a lack of local zoning laws, which allows homes to rise near petrochemical facilities (like those on its refinery-heavy east side) and other polluted sites. “We know from historical analysis that public housing tends to be located in areas that are more environmentally contaminated. And it’s not just from air pollution. It can be Superfund sites as well.”
In fact, 16 Superfund sites in Texas sustained damage during Harvey, 9 of them in low-income neighborhoods or communities of color, according to a study conducted by the Center for Biological Diversity. In other words, for many of the already-burdened residents impacted by the storm, these were no ordinary floodwaters. In the hurricane’s wake, the U.S. Oil Recovery site in Houston was reported to have leaked benzene, mercury, arsenic, and acetone into the water; dioxins also leaked from the area’s San Jacinto River Waste Pits. And as climate change increases the intensity and frequency of Gulf Coast storms, threats like these only loom larger.
“It’s tempting to think that sea level rise is a problem for affluent beachfront homeowners,” says Rob Moore, director of NRDC’s Water and Climate team, which focuses on flooding, rising sea levels, and other impacts of global warming. “But quite frankly, this is going to hit lower-income people much harder. They tend to live in areas that are more vulnerable to begin with,” he notes, “or in older housing stock that isn’t built to more modern standards or should be sited in areas that would be safer from a hurricane.”
According to census data, 29 percent of the U.S. population lives in coastline counties—and of those coastal residents, Moore notes that approximately 13 percent fall below the poverty line. An estimated 4 to 13 million Americans will be displaced due to sea level rise alone, he says, and “a significant portion of those are going to be lower-income people.”
Tragically, affordable housing will continue to be a major casualty of monster storms, says Moore, who notes that the failure of communities to invest in or replace their damaged public housing is a recurring problem. It’s also a national one: According to a report by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, there are only 35 affordable rental units for every 100 extremely low-income households in the United States. That gap widens in many coastal cities, where each extreme weather event causes housing stock to dwindle further, pushing low-income people permanently out of their communities.
In a recent report on post-hurricane Galveston, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas drew attention to this phenomenon (which some call “climate gentrification”) and its effects on the local economy. “With aid uncertain,” the report notes, “many small businesses and low- and moderate-income communities and households face increased risks associated with a delayed recovery process, extended periods of displacement, and high-end, market-rate redevelopment that occurs within poorer or historic neighborhoods.” It lists various consequences that will befall Galveston as a result of the slow pace of federal aid and echoes Sloan’s point that the city’s tourist economy will suffer if it cannot accommodate its own workforce.
Even where the will to rebuild exists, the process can be agonizing. Before the storm, when Houston announced plans to place more low-income units in economically stressed areas, it faced charges of promoting racial segregation. Next came a proposal to build a 233-unit low-income housing project in the upscale Galleria neighborhood—which prompted fierce opposition from neighbors and was eventually nixed.
Siting new projects is always a struggle, concedes Tory Gunsolley, president and CEO of the Houston Housing Authority. But he bristles at charges that his city is in any way abandoning its public housing tenants. “With Harvey, we hope to replace every unit we lost, if not add capacity,” Gunsolley says. “We’re serving more people today than we’ve ever served.” Nevertheless, much of Houston is still waiting for Hurricane Harvey disaster relief programs to be finalized at the city, county, and state levels. Only then can Gunsolley budget for new housing.
Volunteers with the Coalition for the Homeless conduct their annual survey of people experiencing homelessness in Houston.
Many affordable housing experts remain skeptical of the outlook for those pushed out by storm-related difficulties in Houston and beyond. The bigger problem, they argue, is our national prejudice against helping the poor find homes at all. “There’s absolutely an agenda to eliminate and not replace public housing in this country,” says Matthew Lasner, an associate professor of urban policy and planning at the City University of New York’s Hunter College.
Although cities were long seen as the “real champions” of public housing, he says, in places like Houston it’s become a political lightning rod. In the aftermath of many of the South’s most severe hurricanes—including Katrina, Harvey, and Ike—officials often say they continue to support public housing, Lasner contends, while in reality “they’re often happy to see public housing go.”
The realities on the ground are keeping affordable housing activists like Maddie Sloan very busy. “We’re now seeing a lot of organizing around displacement, evictions, and gentrification,” she says. “There has also been a lot of resistance to the rent hikes that HUD [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] has proposed for public housing residents. I hope we’ll have some of that same energy for the disaster recovery push.”
“I think we’ve reached a point where it’s impossible to deny the affordable-housing crisis in this country,” Sloan says. “And it’s a crisis that is going to affect everyone.”