Hurricane Harvey, One Year Later

New Orleans   Given Houston’s experiences with its own flooding and hurricanes and its welcoming and sheltering of thousands after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it would have seemed safe to assume that if any city could respond well to disaster, it must be Houston.  A year after Hurricane Harvey, the answer is clear:  not Houston either.

I was supposed to be in Houston when Harvey hit, and wisely delayed my trip, going only once reports were in that water was off of most of the interstate, though I found it still lapping the shoulder around Beaumont and Port Arthur.  In Houston, organizers told me of the lack of response in apartment complexes where the residents were largely Hispanic and often undocumented.  Philanthropists were generous, but uninterested in discussing the lessons of Katrina, as if it were ancient history, rather than a still open wound.  Houston could handle it.

And, they have, just not all that well.  There is still no real plan to protect the city in the future.  A $2.5 billion bond issue passed overwhelmingly by an 86% margin, but in dealing with a disaster of this scale that’s almost chump change, and only for the Houston area, while Harvey’s footprint was much larger.

As one of the largest cities in the country, the damage in Houston is not as stark and inescapable as Katrina’s devastation in New Orleans.  Maybe that makes Harvey easier to ignore, if you were lucky.  Certainly, that’s been the case in terms of critical state or federal response.  Governor Kathleen Blanco in Louisiana was as intimately involved in the recovery in New Orleans and Louisiana as the Mayor or City Council was, sometimes making the right decisions and sometimes, making the wrong ones in delaying housing funds and allowing school charters.  Governor Greg Abbott on the other hand has been a virtual bystander in Texas offering little more than bootstrap platitudes and precious little money.  Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both targeted billions for Katrina recovery.  Though it was inadequate, it dwarfs the little that President Trump has provided other than emergency relief and a recovery package that is also supposed to handle the devastation in Puerto Rico.  Harvey may teach Houston and Texas Republicans the limits of what conservative provincialism really means when citizens demand and expect their government to also be responsive to their needs and not just step out of the way.

The recovery has not been equal even when it has moved forward.  A Kaiser Family Foundation survey conducted with the Houston-based Episcopal Health Foundation found that 70% of Texans now say their lives are largely normal, “but of the people who reported still being affected by the storm, more than 40% say they aren’t getting the help they need to recover.”  Not surprisingly, the “survey found that those who said they weren’t getting enough assistance were more often African-American, poor and lived in the state’s so-called Golden Triangle area…which includes the cities of Port Arthur, Beaumont, and Orange.”

All of this sounds too familiar.  Given the regular and recurring disasters, worsened by climate change, it’s becoming almost trite to keep asking, “When are we going to learn?”

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Could Creating Affordable Housing Become the Next Hot Thing?

New Orleans  In a meeting recently, I was asked who cares about providing affordable housing opportunities in rental and ownership markets for low-and-moderate income families, and after a nanosecond head scratch, I couldn’t help but reply, “just about nobody.”

Two pieces in the daily papers speak to the crisis, and, just maybe, the opportunity that interest is rising in reappraising this market, so desperately sought by our people.

The first in the Times looked at the surprising demand for homes in Houston, despite the flooding from Harvey, including in some neighborhoods still watching the water recede. One realtor claimed that of 50-odd pending sales, only 8 had backed out. Others noted that the number of calls from families expressing interest in buying even in flooded areas was soaring, surprising everyone. Sure, many are hoping for bargains, but that also goes to the heart of how desperate people are for housing. The story leaves with a question from one family mulling over paying $50,000 to buy a flooded property and another $50,000 to fix it up, and thinking that might still be a bargain, despite the history of flooding and the expectation that there will be more in the future. They noted that it might be worth it even with steep payments for flood insurance in the future. What can you say, but that this is crazy, and that it underlines how desperate families are.

Another piece in the Wall Street Journal talked about a company raising $233 million for an affordable housing fund from foundations, funds, and high-worth individuals because luxury housing has gone slack, while demand for affordable homes is skyrocketing. This is unlikely to be much of an opportunity for low-and-moderate income families, but still it’s moving in the right direction.

Median family income according to the Census Bureau is now knocking at the door at $60,000 per year. Families with $40000 to $60,000 in family income, fair credit, and steady jobs that are producing that income can afford to buy homes, if they are priced right, putting them in better shape buying, rather than renting. They might be better renting, if there were caps that hedged against gentrification and guaranteed affordability, and if the units were decent, but few developers are producing units for this market.

Yet, there are tens of thousands of abandoned homes in city after city creating the classic situation that spurred ACORN’s squatting campaigns in the 1980s to match “people that need houses with houses that need people.” This is affordable housing stock, if the will existed to rehabilitate it. Post-Katrina, it was amazing to have our partners from Cornell and other universities go door to door in flooded areas and find that more than 80% of the homes could be rebuilt rather than demolished.

We need a massive, national program that invests in putting these two problems together to come up with one solution. If we could do it, then, yes indeed, affordable housing could be the next “hot” thing in our cities.

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