The Need For Housing Following Natural Disaster

Rapido, a program based in Texas, offers a fast and flexible solution.
By Scott Beyer | Oct 13, 2018 |
By Scott Beyer | Oct 13, 2018 |
The flooding in Houston from Hurricane Harvey / wikimedia

Those who follow housing policy already understand that there is a nationwide housing crisis. Various demographics in the U.S., faced with low wages and government regulations that make the commodity more expensive, cannot buy or rent the units they need.

A wrinkle within this trend is the growing epidemic of substandard living conditions, or even flat-out homelessness, among natural disaster victims. Since 2005, when Hurricane Katrina turned disaster relief into a mainstream issue, America has witnessed one chaotic weather event after another: Hurricane Sandy in the northeast; Hurricane Harvey in Houston; the California wildfires; Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico; and the list goes on.

These events generally circulate in the news cycle for a week or so, as stunning video footage of destruction is collected and human casualty counts are tallied. But once cameras leave, the enduring collateral damage are the thousands of people, seemingly forgotten of, who lose their homes and don’t have any viable replacement. The epidemic is one that neither the public nor private sectors—both of which are heavily regulated—have yet addressed.

Substandard Options

According to a report last November in The Hill, 70,000 Americans are now living in hotels because of weather-related displacement, and thousands more are living in shelters. Along with these disaster victims, says Sarah Mickelson, director of public policy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, others are settling for additional substandard options – by crashing on couches, living in RVs or even moving back into their old flooded, mold-infested homes.

These unfortunate conditions result because home construction does not, for several reasons, occur fast enough to replace the housing demolished when nature strikes. One source of blame is slow-moving federal bureaucracy. Part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) role is to provide, following these disasters, temporary shelter in municipalities. After that, recipients are expected to find long-term housing, either on the open market or through HUD. But FEMA, despite its core mission of providing quick solutions to problems that are fundamentally overnight in character, can drag its feet for years.

The issue begins after a city gets hit, says Nick Mitchell-Bennett, executive director of the Community Development Corporation in Brownsville, TX, a poor city along the Mexican border that has suffered hurricane damage. To qualify for federal money, a city must do an environmental review study and present a plan to FEMA, following a complex set of rules that can take six months to fulfill. Once in FEMA’s database, the approval process can take over a year. If the money finally arrives, it must be funneled through state governments—aka the political process—before reaching municipalities.

The ordeal isn’t helped, added Mickelson, by the fact that FEMA’s organizational structure is chaotic, with ever-changing programs and guidelines.

“The problem is that today we’re not using the best-practice programs that we already know to work,” she said, such as the Disaster Assistance Housing Program, which provides temporary housing.

As a result, FEMA generates very few units. The Houston Chronicle noted in November—a full 3 months after Harvey —that “in Houston, where local officials estimate the hurricane damaged more than 311,000 housing units— roughly a third of the housing stock—no one has moved into a trailer, secured an apartment or seen repair work begin through the state’s interim housing programs.”

The housing that FEMA does build is overpriced, thereby reducing the political support for expanding the agency’s reach and budget. Following the 2016 floods in Baton Rouge, FEMA’s trailers were found to cost $130,000 on average, which is over double the market rate, and would be enough to purchase permanent brick-and-mortar housing throughout Baton Rouge and other cities. When trailers aren’t provided, disaster victims are handed vouchers for extended stays at hotels and motels – again, not a cost-effective solution.

The private sector also has shortcomings, failing to build enough housing fast. Disaster victims are often low-income to begin with, having bought units in flood-prone areas that couldn’t get insurance. When their homes are wrecked, they lose their biggest asset, and don’t have money to afford rents in markets that have suddenly become overheated due to the overnight housing shortage. Private developers don’t fill the void, because these prospective low-income clients can’t meet the price points that would impel them to break ground on new grand-scale projects.

“It just doesn’t pencil,” said Mitchell-Bennett.

Part of this boils down to the financial reality of new housing, which is generally more expensive than older housing. The private sector also faces the same regulatory mindset imposed onto FEMA. In a 2016 survey, the National Association of Homebuilders found that government regulations now account for 24 percent of new home costs. The homes left unbuilt under such a paradigm are the cheap starter units that would be the only option for lower income brackets.

One Solution: Rapido

These factors suggest the need for a solution; one that mixes public and private aspects - and throws out unnecessary regulations. A program cited by Mickelson was Rapido, a housing style offered by Mitchell-Bennett’s CDC in Brownsville. The Rapido program’s first priority, explained Mitchell-Bennett, is encouraging cities to prepare in advance for disasters. By collecting data on demographics, topography, existing housing needs and overall strategy, cities wouldn’t be so overwhelmed once they deal with FEMA.

Rapido’s other innovation is a modular housing form that fuses temporary and permanent concepts. In the immediate aftermath of disaster, a Rapido home is a small structure that provides a roof over a given household’s head. Once that household is in better financial health, Rapido homes can be expanded with additional rooms, transforming them into larger permanent homes. Typical average construction costs are, according to Mitchell-Bennett, around $80,000 for this fully built-out model, and because they’re modular, they can be moved anywhere.

Rapido, as part of a nonprofit, has yet to receive significant federal money or achieve mass scale; it’s done some small pilot projects following disasters along the Gulf of Texas. Other modular housing types—like the prefab homes that San Francisco developer Patrick Kennedy proposed for the city’s homeless—are presumed to be cheaper and faster than existing government-run models. Experimenting with these styles through outsourcing, while reducing some of the regulatory mandates, is one way FEMA might improve services. This would benefit the lives of displaced people who, thanks to the whims of nature, now sometimes spend years without a stable home.

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