Photo: National Guard, Sgt. Daniel J. Martinez.

Local and national advocates and experts reflect on Houston's recovery thus far and where it can be improved.

Hurricane Harvey caused the single largest loss of naturally occurring affordable housing in Houston’s history. Given the 320,000 unit shortage of affordable housing in the region, by Houston LISC Executive Director Amanda Timm’s estimate, it is unclear where storm-displaced families go from here. Many have few options. Affected neighborhoods remain suspended in “a state of prolonged suffering,” according to Earthea Nance, Associate Professor in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University. They are disempowered, feel unheard and have few tools to protect themselves from future disasters or from the rapid gentrification often spurred by natural disasters and ensuing recovery efforts.

Roughly seven months after the storm, LISC and the Kinder Institute for Urban Research brought together local and national affordable housing advocates and experts Tuesday to discuss the challenges and opportunities to moving toward a more resilient housing system.

Though Houston’s affordable housing concerns predate the storm, both the flow of recovery funding to the region and its immediate impact underscore the need to push the conversation forward. Resilience considers two major questions about systems of housing, transportation, hazard mitigation and social equity: How does our system operate on a day-to-day basis? And how good are we at bouncing back from tragedies? Resilience thinkers call these shocks and stressers, and they are not easy questions to answer.

But conversations around equitable recovery and resilience did yield four major takeaways. First, action is needed. Second, communities need to be empowered and resident voices need to be centered. Third, the recovery process can accentuate existing inequities. And fourth, as part of an effort to address longstanding inequities, neighborhoods can and should become more resilient and vibrant, but not at the expense of longtime residents.

Enough talk. It’s time to act.

Moving toward a resilient housing system is, in planner parlance, a “wicked problem.” Addressing housing requires discussions about public safety, education, access to goods and services, speculative real estate development and transportation. Confronting inequities in the recovery process requires examining existing processes of inequity that have undergirded development and neighborhood change in Houston for a century.

Houston isn’t alone in this.

Marissa Aho, Chief Resilience Officer for the City of Los Angeles, spoke to her city’s efforts to integrate resilience thinking across departments. By requiring departments across the city to appoint a resilience officer, incorporating resilience strategies implementation into department managers' annual performance reviews and creating a series of interdepartmental task forces and working groups, the city was able to rapidly institutionalize comprehensive resilience thinking. This effort was coupled with the incorporation of neighborhood liaisons, which exchanged information and advocacy between the city and their neighborhoods.

Heather Muller, Systems Change Project Manager at Houston’s Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) described how her organization has shaped the process of providing permanent supportive housing so well that the city approached them to help with rapid rehousing following Harvey. First, they approached the problem all at once and to scale – no pilot programs, no incremental planning and rollout. Second, CSH built in an implementation structure up front, and was prepared with extra staff. These implementation structures included things like service provider coordination, inventorying existing resources and available units, creating navigation teams to help move folks through the process and engaging with landlords ahead of time.

In the Rio Grande River Valley, Elaine Morales, Design Manager at bcWORKSHOP, has helped set the standard for democratic design of new resilient housing for flood impacted homeowners. The RAPIDO housing system connects architects to residents to steer the design of new homes. Building from a small core unit to move families out of temporary housing quickly, RAPIDO’s approach reduces the time it takes to rehouse residents and the cost of rehousing by eliminating temporary FEMA trailers from the process.

We need to support and empower our neighborhoods

Low-income and other vulnerable communities need to be empowered throughout and after recovery. Nance said many “programs are hollow,” meaning they have no special mechanisms to address the unbearable costs of recovery and reconstruction for these residents. The Texas Floodplain Management Association, for example, includes no mention of working with low income neighborhoods in their document outlining best practices in mitigation and recovery.

To address this concern, Los Angeles leans on Neighborhood Councils, which help create Neighborhood Resilience Hubs. Each council also identifies Resilience Liaisons to work with the city in creating Neighborhood Preparedness Plans.

In Houston, Susan Rogers, Director of the University of Houston’s Community Design Resource Center, said there is a need to invest in organizing assistance in neighborhoods where the civic infrastructure may not exist. This strategy will help bolster a system of 12 neighborhood resilience hubs that are already in place in Houston. Planning and implementation processes should center neighborhood vision and expertise, according to Rogers. Morales added that case management and service coordination can be improved to get residents access to needed information and empower them to make decisions and participate meaningfully in recovery processes.

Current practices fall short, according to Kathy Payton, executive director of Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation who said residents and civic leaders have not been on a level playing field with planners, policymakers, and program administrators. And multiple stakeholders agreed there has been a gap between technicians and floodplain experts on the one hand with the lived experiences of residents on the other.

When assessing hazard risk and potential solutions, community expertise must be the beginning and end of the conversation, and neighborhood groups should have a role in checking the decisions made, according to the participants.

Recovery investment mirrors and exacerbates historic inequity

Longstanding equity concerns, in the face of disaster, translate into concerns about access to recovery programs, new threats to neighborhood stability and the legacy of patterns of inequity and disempowerment in low-income neighborhoods.

Working in one of Houston’s historically black neighborhoods, Payton contrasted disaster recovery with what she called “life recovery.” In Fifth Ward, where many homes were flooded, residents have no access to recovery resources, cannot replace basic necessities, and have to cope with hazardous living conditions in homes that do not meet the city’s building codes, according to Payton. But for many residents, these are longstanding challenges compounded by the disaster. Because they had no access to resources – home improvement loans, homebuyer education, etc. – to make critical repairs in the past, they cannot qualify for most recovery programs today. Indeed, in Harris County’s low-income communities, the rate of FEMA application denial is around 50 percent, according to Timm.

Neighborhood change can be positive, but it has to be managed and inclusive

Working to build affordable housing, Payton said her organization believes Fifth Ward and other disadvantaged neighborhoods deserve economic integration and investment to bring amenities and services up to a level comparable to Houston’s better-served neighborhoods. But they also deserve to maintain the cultural and physical fabric that makes their communities recognizable to them, said Payton. 

This was a particular concern in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina when many low-income areas experienced displacement, according to Jeff Hebert, New Orleans' former chief administrative officer and chief resilience officer. In the storm’s wake, low-income neighborhoods fell victim to rapid speculative land grabbing and development, changing the character of these neighborhoods.  

Some of this is the result of policy. Nance said changes to National Flood Insurance Program requirements as well as cost-benefit analyses conducted by FEMA often force low-income households into impossible positions. They do not qualify for individual assistance, for example, or they cannot afford to rebuild to new floodplain standards and their neighborhoods do not qualify for other mitigation projects such as buyouts or elevations because of cost-benefit analysis methodology.

By Payton’s estimation, market rate housing outpaces affordable housing development in Fifth Ward 15 to 1. Newer, higher income homeowners are able to bear the cost of required changes to construction standards. Many longtime residents are aging, low income, or without access to financial assistance and thus often cannot play a meaningful role in shaping the trajectory of neighborhood change.

The final step? Connecting these lessons to policy. Leaders engaged in community building and affordable housing need to help neighborhoods advocate for what they know they need and hold elected officials’ feet to the fire to fill the gaps in recovery caused by historic injustices and limited federal programs.