Climate disasters worsen affordable housing crisis

NationalScienceWeatherBusinessPoliticsCommunity Home
Collaborator: Streetlight
Published: 03/16/2022, 3:10 PM
Edited: 03/16/2022, 3:23 PM

Written By: Mollie Bryant

(NATIONAL) As natural disasters become more frequent and extreme due to climate change, many low-income renters are vulnerable to hazards like flooding, tornadoes and fire.

Read this story on Big If True here.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), 40% of occupied rental units in the United States are in areas that pose at least a moderate risk of natural disasters stemming from climate change.

More than a fifth of those units have rents under $600.

Almost 1.2 million rental units supported by the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program and 700,000 project-based Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) units are in high-risk locations, according to a study from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.

Severe weather that causes power outages and extreme temperatures also carries risks of fire or carbon monoxide poisoning as people turn to candles and unsafe heating and cooking sources.

Most fire deaths occur in residential buildings, where people feel they should be safest, said Tonya Hoover, deputy administrator for the US Fire Administration. Those home fires further reduce the nation’s depleted housing supply.


“We can’t afford to lose housing stock,” Hoover said. “We can’t afford to lose areas where people are trying to live their lives because we don’t have the stock to put people back into something.”

Last year, Texas became one of the few states to adopt flood disclosure laws for renters.

Madison Sloan, attorney and director of Texas Appleseed’s disaster recovery and fair housing project, said the law is a good first step but overlooks the impact of the affordable housing crisis. A short supply of rental options and rising rents have made low-rent units hard to come by across the country.

“A lot of people, not just low-income people, don’t have a lot of choices about where to live, and … the biggest shortage of units is for people at the lowest income level,” Sloan said. “You have no choice if you don’t want to take a unit that flooded because there’s not another unit out there.”

How natural disasters affect low-income renters

When climate disasters damage homes, they often displace low-income renters, who have few affordable housing options.

Renters are less likely than homeowners to have the resources to evacuate during disasters. About 40% of renters couldn’t afford to leave their homes during an emergency in 2017, according to American Housing Survey data.

Last year, a winter storm in Texas caused power outages affecting about 4.5 million homes and businesses. The state has said 246 people died due to the storm, but an analysis from BuzzFeed News estimates the toll was three times that.

[ Support stories like these by making a tax-deductible donation to ]

The storm caused an estimated $295 billion in damage, and for some families, home repairs took months. Sloan said that after the freeze, some renters didn’t have water for a month.

“After any disaster, tenants are the most vulnerable,” she said. “They’re reliant on landlords to repair whatever the issue is. There are often mass evictions after a disaster. Low-income tenants often have nowhere else to go.”

Compared to renters, homeowners usually receive more post-disaster support, including from Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Recovery, a HUD program that provides cities, counties and states with funding to rebuild and recover after disasters.

From 2006 to 2015, affordable rental construction and rental assistance received about $3 billion from the program, representing just an eighth of its total housing-related spending, according to a HUD analysis. During the same period, homeowners received $13.6 billion from the program.

For renters to be eligible for block grant funds, damages to their personal property must be at least $2,000, according to HUD guidelines.

“If an inspector looks at everything you own and doesn’t think it’s worth $2,000, you get nothing, so tenants are denied at disproportionately high rates when they are in fact the most in need,” Sloan said.

Low-income communities of color are more vulnerable to disasters

Because of racist housing policies like redlining, many communities of color were steered into areas with high risk of natural disasters like flooding and exposure to environmental hazards, like toxic chemicals.

[ Read more: Why renters are paying more for substandard homes ]

Some neighborhoods of color still lack essential infrastructure to prevent flooding. In Houston, 88% of open drainage ditches are in low-income communities of color, and 43% of those ditches don’t provide adequate drainage, a 2017 analysis from Texas Housers found.

“So essentially, many of these communities don’t even have standard flood protection, let alone the protection all communities need as climate change makes storms more frequent and intense,” Sloan said. “Part of disaster recovery, mitigation and planning needs to be flood-protective infrastructure, and we need to prioritize historically disadvantaged neighborhoods that haven’t have that infrastructure in the past.”

Houston was one of the areas hardest hit by flooding during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. A recent HUD investigation found that the Texas General Land Office discriminated against residents of color by awarding disaster relief funds in a way that disproportionately benefited white people.

Out of about $2 billion the land office earmarked for Hurricane Harvey hazard mitigation, including flood prevention, Houston received nothing.

Power outages also tend to disproportionately affect low-income communities and those of color.

After Hurricane Ida struck Louisiana last year, more than a million homes and businesses lost power.

“We’re in no way prepared for a new storm,” said Logan Burke, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, a consumer advocacy organization based in New Orleans. “Nothing has changed since Hurricane Ida.”

Several years ago, the New Orleans City Council directed Entergy New Orleans to investigate power outages in the city. A 2018 report by consulting firm Quanta Technology found power outages had increased during the past five years.

Aside from environmental challenges unique to New Orleans—hurricanes and flooding, plus high humidity and a water table that endangers wooden power poles—much of the city’s electrical system is outdated.

Some of its equipment dates to the 1920s, and the system is largely designed to industry standards from the 1950s. From 2013 to 2017, most power outages in New Orleans were caused by equipment, according to the Quanta report.

Power outages in New Orleans mostly impact low-income communities of color, including New Orleans East, Burke said.

During storms like Hurricane Ida, deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning have been linked to gas generators. Burke wants to hear more discussion of rooftop solar systems with battery storage, a safer alternative that was successful during Ida.

“I really hope that the community and the city council can start to lean into these modern technologies because it isn’t just about how can we make things work better during and after storms, but year round,” Burke said.

How building codes can make homes safer

A 2020 FEMA study found that hazard-resistant building codes saved $1.6 billion in damages, but 65% of local governments don’t have modern codes geared to reduce the risk of natural disasters.

Some cities and states have adopted building codes that make homes more resilient against fire. California and Maryland require new homes to be installed with fire sprinklers.

Hoover, the deputy US fire administrator, was California’s state fire marshal when the state adopted its fire sprinkler rule. She said basic fire safety measures can make a big impact.

“I think we get tied up in (having) to do the big things when there are a lot of little things we can do,” she said.

For instance, homeowners and landlords should ensure homes have working smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors and fire extinguishers. They can make homes more resistant to fire by clearing nearby vegetation and using noncombustible roofing materials.

[ Read more: How building code enforcement works in three cities ]

Hoover recommends everyone have a plan in place for the possibility of a fire.

“Climate change brings about change in the landscape and weather,” Hoover said. “It changes how we function in our lives, how we heat, cool and feel comfortable in our homes. We talk a lot about fire safety in grade school. We, as adults, need to constantly consider fire safety when we think about our homes.”

The Disaster Resilience Network is a nonprofit focused on reducing the impact of disasters in Oklahoma. The organization has advocated for the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety’s fortified construction standards, which are designed to make homes more durable against severe weather, including tornadoes, high wind and hail. The standards cover single and multifamily homes and roofs. Homeowners can receive insurance discounts for homes and roofs built to the fortified standards.

After a 2013 EF5 tornado tore through Moore, killing 24 and causing $3 billion in damage, the city became the first in Oklahoma to adopt building codes that allow homes to withstand EF2 tornadoes and winds up to 135 miles per hour.

Despite fears that the change would push development out of Moore, the codes didn’t significantly affect the number of homes sold, new building permits or the price of housing, according to a 2017 study in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction.

A study of Baldwin and Mobile counties in Alabama found that the property values for fortified homes were about 7% higher than those of non-fortified homes.

“It makes a point that people would like to be safe,” Disaster Resilience Network Executive Director Tim Lovell said of the research. “So we just have to convince people this is the thing to do and that we have to protect those who are most vulnerable. The people who are most vulnerable now are the people who are going to be the most vulnerable during a disaster.”

Contact editor Mollie Bryant at 405-990-0988 or Follow her on Twitter.

This report was funded by our readers. is a 501(c)(3) news nonprofit based in Oklahoma City, and you can support our independent journalism here.


This story has no comments yet