Recovery & Resilience: Housing is Critical Infrastructure

Rules that keep households from becoming whole make us less resilient

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Harvey residential flooding along Langham Creek near the Addicks Reservoir in West Houston. (Photo: Harris County Flood Control District)

Hurricane Harvey destroyed or damaged more than 204,000 homes and apartment buildings in Harris County. The devastation was unprecedented in its scope and the housing challenge is unique from other major tropical storms. Many households were displaced only temporarily, but two years after Harvey a substantial number remain only partially rebuilt or entirely unattended.

The 10,000 square mile footprint of the storm affected people of every economic condition. I personally know several well-resourced and well-insured people that only recently completed rebuilding their homes. Living on concrete floors with plastic sheeting for walls and surrounded by construction supplies that serve as makeshift furniture for months-on-end is what lies behind the façade of homes that from the curb look just like any other. It is draining, heartbreaking, lonely and isolating.

We must do better.

While the slow trickle of federal housing dollars after disasters is only part of the problem, additional obstacles are impeding Harris County and Houston’s path to a more thriving, resilient community. The Texas General Land Office has repeatedly denied a requested waiver by Harris County and Houston officials to bypass a rule that limits the number of bedrooms in homes rebuilt with federal Harvey recovery funds.

The Texas General Land Office points the finger at the Housing and Urban Development Department, which in turn says the state can spend those dollars as it sees appropriate. Wherever the roadblock is, denial of the waiver is short-sighted and goes against the idea that we should rebuild stronger communities in the wake of a disaster.

In broad terms, resilience is the ability to adapt and recover from the shocks of disaster or chronic stresses in a way that improves the long-term prospect for development and ability to thrive. In the context of a pre-existing affordable housing crisis exacerbated by the havoc of Hurricane Harvey, rebuilding homes to make them whole by restoring them fully to their previous condition is not a handout and is not in and of itself does not incentivize complacency in what should be one’s personal responsibility for resilience. Denying a waiver for the rule that limits the number of bedrooms that can be rebuilt with federal dollars ultimately weakens our community’s greater ability to be resilient. It puts us in a more fragile place when the next storm strikes.

Every economic stripe is affected by this housing crisis but disaster after disaster makes it clear that the lowest-income households face the steepest traumas and hardest road to recovery. In Houston, we were already facing a shortage of affordable housing. At the lower end of the economic scale, in the City of Houston proper there were long lines for public housing. Several of those larger units were flooded and uninhabitable, resulting in more people competing for scarce housing opportunities and exponentially increasing instability. But Houston’s housing crisis is a regional problem requiring a regional approach. It is also Harris County’s problem. It is a problem along the entire greater Houston-Galveston area — especially as the more affordable housing continues to move outside the city and county lines.

We also know that housing is directly related to public health and quality of life issues. It is central to dealing with chronic stressors that diminish day-to-day resilience. Housing affects public health and quality of life through a number of mechanisms, including but not limited to:

· Racial, ethnic and class diversity

· Residential stability

· Employment

· Social relationships

· Support systems

· Environment

· Education

At this late stage, we can’t underestimate the ongoing effects of unsafe housing conditions that exist post-Harvey such as mold, asbestos, rodents, exposure to the elements and, of course, mental health.

For its part, in addition to federal funding and the Texas General Land Office approving a waiver that allows Harvey-impacted homes to rebuild to their previous number of bedrooms, local officials can take a more aggressive approach to conducting health impact assessments throughout its housing policies and practices — both in and out of the recovery process. A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts examines those issues and provides a solid starting place.

In many respects, housing is critical infrastructure. The Department of Homeland Security defines critical infrastructure sectors as those “whose assets, systems, and networks, whether physical or virtual, are considered so vital…that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination thereof.” If we think outside the box and apply that rationale locally, housing meets that criteria. Beyond that, preserving our housing stock will enable us to bounce back quicker from the next disaster by relieving the pressures of both the shock from the event itself as well as the chronic stressors of the affordable housing crisis.

Approving the bedroom waiver is not an investment in the status quo, it is an investment in the future that makes Harris County and Houston stronger, safer and more resilient.

Francisco Sanchez | @DisasterPIO

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