Nearly one out of every 10 low-income housing projects is in a flood zone. In Houston, residents of a government-subsidized complex have sued the landlord, arguing that the subsidy system unfairly traps them in a cycle of devastation with no choice but to continuously return to where their lives are at risk and where they have lost everything — year after year.
Half a million Americans live in government subsidized housing that is at direct risk for flooding. This number is modest, because the estimate is based on historical climate data and does not reflect rapidly increasing rainfall patterns.
In 2016, a storm flooded the Arbor Court Apartments in Houston and residents like Sharobin White lost her car and everything in her apartment. Then in 2017, Hurricane Harvey hit Houston and again White lost her car and all her possessions. Like thousands of low-income families, Ms. White’s housing voucher is specific to her building and therefore returning to her apartment — despite the trauma and toxic mold — is her only option.
Low-income residents take legal action
According to an investigative article by the New York Times, the Arbor Court Apartments — like many low-income complexes — is a privately-owned building that has a contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The landlord receives payment from the government in exchange for renting to low-income tenants. Despite the known risks and exorbitant recovery expenses after the flood in 2016, the government renewed its contract with Arbor Court. Given the housing crisis throughout the country, HUD argues that without these complexes, thousands of families would be homeless. In other words, the department believes providing vulnerable housing is more urgent and beneficial than sending half a million Americans out onto the street.
Similarly, the landlord’s lawyer argues that this building is just as at risk as others in the area and that despite two back-to-back floods, such catastrophes are not the norm. Climate science, however, indicates that these “freak storms” are indeed becoming more frequent and therefore not something that the government can afford to ignore.
Low-income communities require massive amounts of assistance and funding after disasters and are least capable of recovery. By taking the risk to continue to fund such inexpensive, but repeatedly vulnerable housing, the government is setting itself up for higher costs in the long run — including losses in infrastructure and lives.
Still, the government and landlords are cutting corners on recovery efforts and forcing low-income residents to return home despite glaring health risks. “Arbor Court is not a close question,” Michael M. Daniel, a civil rights lawyer working on the case, told The New York Times. “How in the world it hasn’t flunked the ‘decent, safe and sanitary’ test — it’s beyond belief.”
Discontinuing decades of discrimination and danger
The connection between low-income housing and unsafe conditions is not new. Land in vulnerable areas is cheaper, and therefore readily available for government and low-income projects, just as low-income and minority residents have historically been segregated to undesirable housing near toxic sites.
A major shift in planning, policy and budget priorities will be necessary to begin to reverse decades of discriminatory policies, but HUD could start by discontinuing contracts with buildings in vulnerable and damaged areas.
In Houston, the Arbor Court landlord is currently constructing a new complex located 25 miles away but in a safer zone — at least in terms of flooding. Although the landlord plans to accept the same housing vouchers at that complex, residents argue that this option is still unacceptable. The new complex is located in a high-crime neighborhood, and the residents and their lawyers argue this is further perpetuating segregation.
Arbor Court residents are calling for subsidized housing vouchers that could be accepted anywhere, giving the families the ability to choose where they want to live. However, the reality is that without specific state legislation, most landlords can legally refuse these vouchers and discriminate against those who have them.
Safer housing solutions
Some states, such as Connecticut and Massachusetts, passed legislation prohibiting landlords from refusing Section 8 housing vouchers, which is an important step in housing reform and justice. Other housing experts propose “climate vouchers,” which could give affected families the option to relocate somewhere safer, rather than being required to return to their unsafe homes in order to keep their benefit.
Another possible solution would be to use disaster mitigation grant funding toward long-term relocation of housing projects and other infrastructure. Last year, HUD received $16 billion for disaster mitigation, which could be used toward building in safer zones or retrofitting buildings to be more resilient to expected storms.
Once residents are relocated, flood zones should be re-converted into wetlands and open spaces, where green infrastructure like underground levees provide critical defenses that protect inland buildings from flooding. Properly designed open spaces can not only protect urban infrastructure, but also provide recreational spaces, beautify neighborhoods and raise property values.
This long-term, equitable planning could ultimately save the government millions in recovery dollars after disasters hit.