The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 1, 2017

Houston must plan an inclusive recovery after Harvey flooded its public housing

September 1, 2017

Hurricane Harvey has brought unimaginable devastation to Houston. Tens of thousands of households are at least temporarily displaced. Everyone affected will suffer disruption, stress, and loss, but as Hurricane Katrina taught us, the lowest-income households—mostly people of color—will face the deepest and longest-lasting traumas.

Houston was already facing a severe affordable housing shortage before Harvey hit. Like housing authorities in most cities, the Houston Housing Authority (HHA) had long waiting lists for its public housing and Housing Choice Voucher programs. Now, much of that housing is flooded, as several of the city’s largest affordable housing complexes were in the flood plain. Several HHA developments had to be evacuated and are likely uninhabitable, and some will need to be rebuilt. Houston’s affordable housing crisis will be worse now, leaving the city’s low-income households competing for few habitable units and facing long-term instability and even homelessness.

Compounding this tragedy is the fact that Houston was generous to low-income households who had nowhere to go when Katrina destroyed their homes in New Orleans in 2005. The HHA issued thousands of new Housing Choice Vouchers and helped displaced families find new places to live. Many of those families stayed in Houston, and many of them have likely been traumatized by Harvey.

Learning from the past

Houston has applied lessons from past storms to help prevent and minimize immediate harms. The lessons of Katrina can also help the city protect its lowest-income families in the future. First, it needs to re-house displaced public housing residents, voucher holders, and families who receive disaster vouchers in normal neighborhoods, not isolated trailer parks.

Second, the HHA should seek the support of its sister agencies in other cities to help find this housing. Texas in 2017 is not Louisiana in 2005. New Orleans’s housing authority was in federal receivership when Katrina hit. In contrast, the HHA is a strong housing agency with many civic partnerships, and its sister agencies in Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, and other cities are sure to help. The challenge is that all those cities are facing their own affordable housing crises and likely have few units to offer. The gravity of the current situation calls for a joint task force or planning effort to support families in need of housing assistance across the region. With Beaumont, Port Arthur, Victoria, and other Texas cities facing flood recovery, the housing problem requires a regional solution.

Finally, Houston needs to quickly replace its damaged public housing and ensure that any new construction includes at least as many subsidized units as were included in the flooded developments. It has taken more than a decade to rebuild New Orleans’s public housing. The new developments are all mixed income and offer few deeply subsidized public housing units. New Orleans has not rebuilt much of its private affordable housing stock, and this shortage means it is increasingly challenging for voucher holders to find housing. It is not surprising that few public or assisted housing families have returned to New Orleans.

What’s next for Houston

These efforts will require substantial and long-term federal investment. Instead of cutting funds for housing assistance, the Trump administration should call on Congress to allocate funds for permanent—not short-term, emergency—vouchers and relocation assistance and support for displaced residents. Houston should continue to apply lessons from Katrina and plan an inclusive recovery that aims for equitable outcomes for its lowest-income residents. That means thoughtful planning for rebuilding that does not place all the affordable housing in the most flood-prone areas and that provides at least as many deeply subsidized units as there were before the storm. It also means building more apartment complexes and other affordable housing to address the shortage that was severe before Harvey hit.

Houston has a robust housing authority and strong civic leadership. Those leaders must rise to the challenge and show they can meet the needs of their most vulnerable citizens.

The sun sets on downtown as flood waters still surround some neighborhoods in Houston, TX on Wednesday, Aug 30, 2017. Hurricane now Tropical Storm Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground as the had to flee their homes in Houston. Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

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