Andy Olin / Kinder Institute / Original photo by Philipp Berndt / Unsplash

Many families in the Houston region live in homes with flood damage, of which they may or may not be aware. These residents may face high levels of mold exposure that can lead to lung damage that puts them at a greater risk of severe complications should they become infected with the novel coronavirus.

COVID-19 is a quickly unfolding disaster layered atop many slower-moving disasters. Public health officials have warned that those with compromised immune systems, underlying conditions and the elderly have an elevated risk of dying from the disease.

Houston is home to another (overlapping) high-risk group of residents that hasn’t received much attention: Those exposed to persistent high levels of mold in their homes. As extended and rolling shelter-in-place orders become a reality, the need for everyone in the Houston metropolitan area to have a safe and sanitary home is transforming from a right to dignity to a matter of public health security.

Area residents whose homes were flooded by Hurricane Harvey, Tropical Storm Imelda or both, may be in greater danger of complications from COVID-19 than others. Many low-income families impacted by the flooding have not yet repaired their homes or have only partially completed repairs and aren’t able to access assistance. Households that haven’t recovered are much more likely to be those of low-income people of color, and also are more likely to be over the age of 65.

Families living in flooded homes face high levels of mold exposure that can scar lungs in a way similar to smoking, which has been identified as a catalyst of severe COVID-19 reaction.

Renters deserve to know if a house has flooded

Although it is federal authorities who should shoulder the blame for inadequate testing, the disgracefully lackluster preparation and incoherent messaging as this pandemic continues, Texas’ deregulation of rental housing heightens the dangers faced by residents. While fungal growth in the home aggravates lungs and can cause asthma, renters may be in the dark because landlords aren’t required to disclose if properties have been flooded.

At this moment, when tests must be given carefully for maximum impact and the prioritization of those who may be at risk of serious health implications, renters in Texas have the right to know if they are living in homes that have flooded in the past. Health departments need as much information as possible, so landlords must fess up.

Local mitigation efforts should factor in flood-damage data

At the municipal level, Harris County and the City of Houston have not done enough to mitigate mold risks. In the weeks before COVID-19’s risk became apparent, the city began conducting focus groups to improve messaging about the dangers of mold. This strategy assumes that homeowners are unaware, when in reality they lack funds to eliminate risk by replacing walls, improving siding or patching roofs.

Trying to make quick home repairs at this moment is too risky. It’s not unfair to say the disastrously slow implementation of the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) home repair program in the city and county — for which the state’s obstruction and slow rolling bear much blame — is now exacerbating the risk of driving up the COVID-19 death rate in the region. 

Luckily, the resources already assembled have life-saving potential. In early 2019, 17,000 people indicated to the city that they owned their homes and needed assistance to make flood-related repairs. The city’s housing department knows who each of these families are and where they live.

This information must inform the location of new testing centers and local health officials should include this risk factor into prioritization systems. Furthermore, nonprofits must take special care to communicate the urgency of social distancing to these populations and safely provide them with the sanitation supplies that could save lives.

Residents sheltering in place need sanitary homes

We should indeed all continue to stay in our homes as much as possible. But, if cycles of severe social isolation are required over the next 18 months to save lives, as many are indicating, we must take cautious but urgent steps toward removing mold from people’s homes to return them to safe and sanitary conditions.

We cannot ask people to shelter in unlivable homes. Right now, we should make plans to enact rapid repairs and roll them out as soon as restrictions on movement are eased, because in all likelihood they will be tightened again. 

We must scrap some of the eligibility criteria for CDBG-DR home repair to hasten the start of work on damaged homes. It is a great injustice that in one of the nation’s richest cities thousands live in dangerous and unsanitary homes.

Living with dignity in a safe and healthy home should be a guaranteed human right — especially now when we are being asked to stay in our homes to slow the spread of a pandemic. Providing high-quality housing to all isn’t just a matter of protecting individuals, it’s a matter of protecting us all. 

Ben Hirsch is a strategic partnerships manager at West Street Recovery, a horizontal relief organization working with residents on continued Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts.