Hurricane victims are headed for homelessness

Hurricane victims are headed for homelessness
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An affordable housing crisis is deepening in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Even before the storms, each community had severe shortages of affordable rental homes.

Houston and Orlando had fewer than 18 affordable and available rental homes for every 100 of the lowest income seniors, people with disabilities and families struggling to get by. In Puerto Rico 45 percent, and the Virgin Island 30 percent, of the population lived below the poverty level – far higher than the 15 percent national average. 

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The vast majority of the poorest families in each location were paying at least half of their limited incomes on rent, leaving few resources for their other basic needs, like food, healthcare, transportation, or for savings for when disasters hit.

 

Then Hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma roared in and destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes. The lowest income residents with the fewest resources to fall back on have been the hardest hit.

In the months since the storms made landfall, not enough has been done to address the housing recovery needs of those impacted. More than 70,000 people — including thousands of children — are still living in hotels through FEMA’s Transitional Shelter Assistance program. Thousands more remain in shelters.

Many families have found the shelter program unusable due to a lack of participating hotels or the participant’s inability to cover the extra associated costs. Many have turned to sleeping on friends or families’ couches, in cars or damaged, mold-infested homes, or in tents. In Puerto Rico, thousands of extremely low-income seniors and families are taking shelter in homes with damaged roofs and sleeping on wet and moldy mattresses. 

Clearly, the magnitude of the destruction, spread across four states and territories, has made the recovery process difficult. But the federal government must act quickly or the calamity may spiral into long-term hopelessness and homelessness, especially for those with the lowest incomes. Unless we commit to rebuilding equitably and ensuring the housing needs of the most vulnerable are prioritized, the recovery efforts will cement in place the underlying crises that existed in these communities before the storms: severe housing poverty and homelessness.

The latest disaster spending request made by the Trump administration to Congress falls far short of the resources and policies needed, and the White House proposal to offset new disaster spending with further cuts to non-defense spending is a nonstarter.

Congress should instead look to the comprehensive set of recommendations of the Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition, endorsed by more than 500 organizations, for concrete steps they must take to ensure that recovery efforts are complete and equitable.

Such action starts with ensuring that housing solutions reach people with the greatest needs. The federal and state governments should take immediate steps to allow the Department of Housing and Urban Development to stand up its Disaster Housing Assistance Program, which was used effectively after Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike and Sandy to provide low income, displaced families with safe, decent, and affordable rental homes and comprehensive case management to help them rebuild their lives. 

This proven approach can directly address some of the gaps in FEMA’s hotel-shelter program in Texas and Florida and can better meet the temporary housing needs of the more than 100,000 Puerto Ricans who have fled to the mainland.

Congress should also adopt innovative housing solutions to speed up the housing recovery process, like the RAPIDO program, created after Hurricane Dolly and modeled after Katrina Cottages. Under RAPIDO, displaced families can immediately move into a core, inexpensive and quick-to-build modular home where they can live during the recovery process, the home being gradually augmented to meet their longer-term needs over time. This temporary-to-permanent housing solution can work well in communities across Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Texas and Florida.

Over the long run, the federal government must at a minimum ensure that the recent hurricanes do not exacerbate the affordable housing crisis. Congress should require that all damaged and destroyed affordable rental homes are repaired or rebuilt and provide substantial funding for Community Development Block Grants — Disaster Recovery funds, prioritizing projects that serve the lowest income renters and their communities.

Additional funding for the national Housing Trust Fund — a federal program for building and rehabilitating homes for people with the greatest needs — is sorely needed in impacted communities, as is a special allocation of Low Income Housing Tax Credits targeted towards housing for people with the lowest incomes.

While this is not an exhaustive list, it is a starting point for any serious attempt to recover from the massive devastation in a way that also addresses long-standing issues of housing poverty and homelessness in impacted communities. The administration and Congress must act quickly to ensure a complete, fair and equitable housing recovery in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Texas and Florida. 

Diane Yentel is the president and CEO National Low Income Housing Coalition.