Austin case study: Postdisaster housing policy and low-income survivors

Several very smart people from the University of Texas and myself just had a paper published in the Journal of Planning Education and Research entitled, “Looking for Home after Katrina: Postdisaster Housing Policy and Low-Income Survivors”.

The authors are TxLIHIS Board member and UT Community and Regional Planning Department faculty member Dr. Elizabeth J. Mueller, former TxLIHIS staff member and current UT Social Work School Research Associate Dr. Holly Bell, UT Social Work School Research Associate Dr. Beth Brunsma Chang. The authors were kind enough to list me as an author as well.

Holly Bell and her colleagues at the UT School of Social Work followed a number of Katrina survivors with very low incomes
from the time they arrived in Austin immediately after being evacuated from New Orleans. The evacuees encountered serious problems resettling.

Here is the abstract…

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, more than a million Gulf Coast residents were forced to flee, nearly 250,000 to Texas. New Orleans lost more than half its population. Four years later, many low-income residents had yet to return. Through qualitative research with low-income survivors relocated to Austin, Texas, and the caseworkers and service providers who worked with them, this article describes the experiences of low-income households. Disaster housing policies were a particularly poor fit for the needs of low-income survivors and, combined with a preexisting shortage of affordable housing in Austin, impeded their recovery.

We came up with the following recommendations…

  1. screen households by income, and assess needs holistically;
  2. prioritize speedy return to home communities and social networks;
  3. prioritize rebuilding for low-income renters and homeowners;
  4. accommodate postdisaster household reformation;
  5. prioritize coordination among agencies and service providers; and
  6. prioritize transit access.

In addition, we offer suggestions for further research to confirm the importance of these findings in other settings and to assess recovery in different settings.

The online version of this article can be found at: http://jpe.sagepub.com/content/early/2011/07/12/0739456X11413602 . But be aware it costs $25 to download. (None of it goes to us).

Katrina Cottage pilot program woes due to failure at all levels

How many times do we have to hear the story before it sinks in?
Let’s sum up the government response to the plight of impoverished hurricane survivors…
The federal government is slow and bungling.
The state government is slow and would rather spend money on economic development rather than helping poor disaster victims get back in a home.
Local governments fiddle with programs and throw up obstacles because they would just as soon find ways to keep the poor from moving back into their communities.
The Washington Post ran a story by Spencer S. Hsu Saturday that reminds us of this once again.
Focusing on the Katrina Cottage debacle Hsu tells the story of a 74 year old man, who dropped out of school at 9 to help his family earn a living. His home destroyed by Hurricane Katrina he is living in a cramped 300 square foot government trailer while across the fence set 700 empty Katrina Cottages.
Mississippi built 3,075 cottages, but many local jurisdictions refused to grant permits or alter zoning codes, apparently concerned that the small structures would lower property values. The state retreated, limiting the cottages for temporary use, and more than 1,800 families remain in them.
Louisiana has done even worse. The state received $75 million to build its own version of the cottages. In two years, the program has been shuffled between state agencies, gotten tied up in a contracting dispute and has yet to complete a single cottage. The first is to be delivered later this year.
I should add that the Texas experience has hardly been much better. A total of seventeen families have been approved to get one of 60-70 temporary units called Heston homes described by the state as “a pre-fabricated, panelized solution”. Only two homes are complete and occupied.
The project was funded with a $16 million FEMA grant. By my math that is more than $228,000 per house (someone please correct me).
The “Heston Home” is single-family pre-fabricated, panelized house that can be disassembled to fit in a standard 8’ x 20’ shipping container. The house makes sense as a rapidly deployable temporary housing unit. The unit can be pre-positioned, stored flat to allow multiple units to be transported
simultaneously, and constructed in as little as eight hours by a six person crew. But this is not a desirable permanent housing solution and will not be acceptable to most cities and neighborhoods.  That said, TDHCA is negotiating with the City of Houston to put 60 of these “units” on a single site for housing people displaced by Hurricane Rita to Houston.
I will wager these will go out in some remote are by themselves and not in an existing neighborhood. I will also wager that if 60 of these units go onto a single site there will be problems with management and conditions to the tenants. I hope someone proves me wrong.
What went wrong with the Heston Home experiment is that the bureaucracy could not respond to the opportunity and is now trying to pound this square peg solution into a round hole reality. FEMA gave TDHCA the contract to buy these units in January 2008. Nine months later Hurricane Ike hit Texas. That was the opportunity to deploy and test the Heston Home, but the bureaucracy was not able to deliver.
Hsu’s summary of the situation in Mississippi and Louisiana is equally applicable for Texas.
The federal government has poured more than $25 billion into aid for individuals, emergency housing and state rebuilding block grants. But states have lagged in developing long-term solutions for dislocated families, in some cases using funds for economic development projects or drafting poorly designed programs.

How many times do we have to hear the story before we fix this problem?

Let’s sum up the response to the plight of hurricane survivors with really low incomes…

  • The federal government is slow and bungling in providing housing;
  • The state government has problems designing an effective housing program and  once the program is designed is either unconscionably slow or completely fails to help poor disaster victims; and
  • Local governments throw up obstacles because they would just as soon the poor not move back into their communities.

We are reminded of this once again in an excellent Washington Post story by Spencer S. Hsu that ran Saturday.

This time the multilevel failure is illustrated in the Katrina Cottage pilot program.

The Heston Home, a FEMA alternative housing pilot program being developed in Texas.
The Heston House, a FEMA alternative housing pilot program being developed in Texas.

Hsu tells the story of a 74 year old Mississippi man, who dropped out of school at age 9 to work in a sawmill to help his family earn a living. His home destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, he is now living in a cramped 300 square foot government trailer while across the fence from his trailer set 700 brand new, empty Katrina Cottages.

The FEMA Alternative Housing Pilot Program, aka the Katrina Cottage Demonstration Program, offers an interesting lens through which to view the actions of each level of government toward the effort of rehousing low-income hurricane survivors.

The pilot program was begun on September 15, 2006 with FEMA’s announcement that it would make available $400 million to test home models to, “evaluate the efficacy of nontraditional short and intermediate term housing alternatives for potential future use in a catastrophic disaster environment.” FEMA announced contracts with Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Alabama to undertake the demonstration programs in early January 2007.

The results have been, to put it mildly, disappointing.

Hsu reports….

Mississippi built 3,075 [Katrina] cottages, but many local jurisdictions refused to grant permits or alter zoning codes, apparently concerned that the small structures would lower property values. The state retreated, limiting the cottages for temporary use, and more than 1,800 families remain in them.

Louisiana has done even worse. The state received $75 million to build its own version of the cottages. In two years, the program has been shuffled between state agencies, gotten tied up in a contracting dispute and has yet to complete a single cottage. The first is to be delivered later this year.

While Hsu does not explore the problems in Texas I can attest the story is the same.

In 2006 I strongly urged the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) to apply for funds from FEMA to carry out a demonstration project. I believed at the time, and still believe, that Katrina Cottages offer a better, more cost-effective temporary housing solution for hurricane survivors than the traditional FEMA trailer. But rather than the traditional Katrina Cottage model, I believe the best solution is to develop a variant of the Katrina Cottage to be used both for temporary housing and incorporated into a permanent rebuilt structure. In this manner the money invested to build the Katrina Cottage is not lost as permanent replacement housing is built.

Consider it from both the perspective of the government and the hurricane survivor. A Katrina Cottage costs around $70,000 to build and move onto a homeowner’s lot. It’s much better for the taxpayer and the homeowner to figure out a way that this $70,000 public investment is turned into permanent housing so that the government does not need to pay to haul off the Katrina Cottage while putting up additional money to build a permanent house. A permanent Katrina Cottage also means the homeowner does not need to take out as large a loan to get their home rebuilt.

Unfortunately, citing time constraints and the design of the FEMA grant competition, the State of Texas did not participate in the development of a sound concept for its Katrina Cottage submission. Instead, the State released an RFP to private manufactured housing developers based on FEMA’s poorly thought out and unimaginative program description. The State of Texas left it to the manufactured housing developers to propose a demonstration program for FEMA to fund.  The result were proposals for only temporary housing solutions. I believe the State itself should have been involved in narrowing the housing concept to a permanent housing solution that was appropriate for the situation facing hurricane survivors in Texas. To compound the problem further the state submitted, virtually verbatim, a half dozen or so of the submissions that it received from manufactured housing developers to FEMA for consideration in the Alternative Housing Pilot Program instead of picking out and submitted the best.

FEMA’s national selection panel sought to select a wide variety of different alternative housing approaches from among the submissions of the states. Since Louisiana and Mississippi had elected to submit a traditional Katrina Cottage, when it came time to review the Texas application the selection committee was looking for something completely different — a highly temporary, modular approach.

The alternative housing pilot program model FEMA decided to fund for Texas certainly met the criteria of being “different”.

The Texas pilot program, known as the “Heston House” is single-family pre-fabricated, panelized house that can be disassembled to fit in a standard 8’ x 20’ shipping container. The house makes sense only as a rapidly deployable temporary housing unit. The unit can be pre-positioned, stored flat to allow multiple units to be transported. It can be constructed in as little as eight hours by a six person crew. It is an interesting idea for a highly specialized housing need.

While the strength of the Heston House is its ability to be shipped in a relatively small container and erected quickly, it’s weakness lies in the fact that it looks like a glorified shipping container with a porch added. The house is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a conventional looking structure that would be welcomed into existing neighborhoods. It closely resembles a single wide mobile home.

As in Louisiana and Mississippi, the program is off to a glacially slow start in Texas.

In the 18 months since receiving the contract from FEMA, a total of seventeen families have been approved to get one of 60-70 temporary units authorized. Only two Heston Houses are complete and occupied. The project was funded with a $16 million FEMA grant. By my math that is more than $228,000 per house, but in fairness, there is a lot of extra program and administrative funds associated with this project because it is a demonstration program. The intent is to make about 50 of the houses available as permanent housing units and 20 as temporary housing units. The temporary housing units are set to be disassembled and stored at some future date in order to test the viability of reusing the houses.

The main challenge Texas faces with the Heston Houses is that they are not a desirable permanent housing solution and will not be acceptable to most cities and neighborhoods. And today’s need is for permanent housing.  If Mississippi cities were reluctant to accept Katrina cottages, I can only imagine the opposition from neighborhood associations and cities when they get a look at the Heston House. That said, TDHCA is negotiating with the City of Houston to put 60 of these “units” on a single site for housing people displaced by Hurricane Rita to Houston.

I will wager these will go out in some remote area by themselves and not in an existing neighborhood. A “community” of these homes is going to look quite similar to a single wide mobile home trailer park. I will also wager that if 60 of these units go onto a single site there will be problems with management and conditions for the tenants.

I hope someone proves me wrong.

I don’t know a lot of people who think it’s a real good idea for government, four years after a hurricane, to set up a large community of low income hurricane survivors, displaced from another part of the state to live in housing of this type. Shouldn’t we be focused instead upon permanently re-housing the survivors? With a different type of housing with a more conventional appearance the odds of this succeeding would have been measurably greater.

But the real solution, and the promise of the Katrina Cottages, was to re-house people quickly in the communities and on their lots where they lived in prior to the hurricane, not to pick people up, move them across the state, and put them in a large community of single wide mobile homes.

The Heston House model might have worked had it been carried out in the way it was designed — as temporary housing for disaster victims, not permanent housing. What went wrong with the Heston House experiment is that the government bureaucracy both at FEMA and at the State of Texas could not respond to the opportunity to use the Heston Houses as temporary housing for Hurricane Ike survivors. Now the state is trying to pound this square peg solution into a round hole reality.

This is not intended to be an indictment of the state housing agency. The people at TDHCA have knocked themselves out to try and make this pilot program work (after agreeing to a flawed approach). Yet the state housing agency, overwhelmed by the scope and size of recent disasters, is attempting to develop and administer programs in areas where state and local governments have little if any practical experience. The fact that state government is trying is of little consolation to impoverished hurricane survivors still searching for a home. Nothing so clearly points out as this experience the need to develop a capable program innovation and planning capacity within state housing agencies.

So here we have yet another illustration of the failure of the federal, state and local governments to adequately respond to the housing needs of low-income hurricane survivors.

  • The federal government was slow to implement the alternative housing pilot program and ended up funding an inappropriate model for the situation on the ground in Texas.
  • The state, lacking the time, resources and expertise to design an appropriate solution, ended up submitting virtually all of the models it was offered by private sector bidders no matter how inappropriate.
  • Local governments, having essentially abdicated their responsibility to provide a way for their low income citizens to move home, will now be in a position of reacting to the federal and state initiatives. If my prediction is correct, local governments will reject attempts to develop a large community of this “alternative housing” without offering any alternative.

Low income hurricane survivors will have no choice but to continue waiting and hoping that a real workable solution to their housing problem someday emerges.

Hsu’s summary of the situation in Mississippi and Louisiana is equally applicable for Texas.

The federal government has poured more than $25 billion into aid for individuals, emergency housing and state rebuilding block grants. But states have lagged in developing long-term solutions for dislocated families, in some cases using funds for economic development projects or drafting poorly designed programs.

I agree.

Watch “The Old Man and the Storm” on-line

In case you missed the broadcast, I urge you to watch the Frontline film, The Old Man and the Storm on-line.

The story of the impact on real people of the incredibly frustrating efforts to rebuild their homes in the wake of the hurricane is told beautifully. This is the story of thousands of our fellow citizens not only in Louisiana but in Texas as well.

We must resolve not to put any more people through this.

PBS film documements role of race, class and politics in rebuilding hurricane damaged homes

Watch the trailer for the PBS Frontline film, “The Old Man and the Storm.”

Several of President Bush’s top aides publicly proclaimed last week that failures to adequately respond to the rescue and rebuilding challenges posed by Hurricane Katrina did more than anything else to sink the Bush Presidency. Today Texas is struggling to put together an effective housing rebuilding program for Hurricane Ike survivors. An ill-conceived draft rebuilding plan has put us on track toward a disaster like that which characterized the Hurricane Katrina rebuilding program.

On Tuesday, January 6 at 8 p.m. (Central Time) the PBS program Frontline will air an important film about one man’s struggle to rebuild his home in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The film is titled, The Old Man and the Storm.

The film portrays “the continued inadequacies of government’s response in the aftermath of Katrina, and how race, class, and politics have affected the attempts to rebuild this American city.”

From the Frontline press release…

FRONTLINE correspondent and filmmaker June Cross journeys with the Gettridge family of New Orleans for 18 months as they endure devastation, political turmoil and a painstakingly slow bureaucratic process to rebuild their homes and their lives. …

Mr. Gettridge navigates the bureaucracy and waits for federal rebuilding money promised through the state-run Road Home homeowner assistance program.

By the winter of 2007, 18 months after the flood, Herbert Gettridge and more than 100,000 other Louisiana homeowners had applied for money from the Road Home program, but fewer than 500 had received a check. Application rules seemed to change monthly as federal agencies argued over regulations. At one point, the whole program seemed in jeopardy after Housing and Urban Development (HUD) told the state that each application required an environmental impact review.

Additionally, the Road Home program, relying on FEMA’s statistics, underestimated the amount of help needed. This led to a $2.9 billion shortfall. Donald Powell, the former federal coordinator of Gulf Coast Rebuilding, tells FRONTLINE, “That shortfall … was based upon expanding the program unilaterally by the state to include wind versus just those homes that were destroyed by the water.” Louisiana Recovery Authority’s Sean Reilly replies: “It came as a bit of a surprise. The Road Home had been in design and implementation for … almost 15 months, and all of the language in the HUD application said that damage from whatever source, whatever cause was going to be covered.”

Meanwhile, ICF Consulting, the company then-Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco had chosen to run the program, revealed in public filings that more than $2 million in bonuses had been awarded to its leadership team. ICF declined to be interviewed, but in an e-mail to FRONTLINE, the company defended its overall performance and justified those bonuses by saying that its executives get paid less than the average industry standard.

Sound familiar? We are facing some of the same problems in Texas.

Watch this film and let’s resolve to learn the lessons from the Hurricane Katrina rebuilding efforts so we can do a better job to help people in Texas communities devastaed by Hurricanes Dolly and Ike rebuild their homes.

Is federal disaster assistance an entitlement?

The back-and-forth between the Texas governor and the US Secretary of Homeland Security over who will pay for the removal of disaster debris from Hurricane Ike raises the question, “Is federal disaster assistance an entitlement?”

Governor Perry has blasted the federal government for paying to bail out Wall Street banks but refusing to bear 100 percent of the cost over an 18 month period for the removal of disaster debris in Texas. Speaking to a group of local elected officials, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff suggested that the State of Texas bear part of the cost, especially given the fact that the State maintains a “rainy day fund”.   Governor Perry has countered that the federal government is penalizing the State of Texas for being fiscally responsible enough to maintain such a fund.

Few people appreciate the fact that the federal government determines the level of assistance it extends to state and local governments in the wake of disasters on a case-by-case basis. Governor Perry, in making a request that the federal government bear the entire cost, cites the precedent of the federal government absorbing 100 percent of the costs of the State of Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Whether this exceptional level of federal generosity was a one-time gesture or a precedent is unclear.

Texas harbors substantial ill feelings about the way it perceives itself treated by the federal government in the wake of Hurricane Rita which struck Texas just weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana. Texas officials claim the federal government shortchanged Texas in the provision of disaster assistance while providing extraordinary levels of assistance to the State of Louisiana.

The question is whether Hurricane Katrina funding levels established a new rule or were a one-time exception.

Continue reading

Reforming FEMA alone won’t fix the problem

There are hopes that a structural reform and management reorganization of FEMA under the Obama Administration will solve the problems that emerged in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Dolly and Ike.  There is a lot of important work to be done with reforming FEMA but even a perfect emergency management agency won’t provide the essential ingredient for an effective federal disaster response.

Don’t get me wrong.  The agency needs better management, more efficient organization and better accountability.

But restructuring alone is not enough.  The quality of Presidential leadership is the truly defining factor that makes of breaks an effective government disaster response.  Contrast the role of President Bush who left it to “Brownie” to deal with the Katrina disaster to President Johnson’s approach to the Hurricane Betsy disaster.

Immediately after Hurricane Betsy devastated New Orleans in September 1965 President Johnson flew to the city. In the flooded Ninth Ward, Johnson visited the George Washington Elementary School, on St. Claude Avenue, which was being used as a shelter. “Most of the people inside and outside of the building were Negro,” the White House diary reads.

Continue reading

Slow expenditures, questionable priorities plague Houston and Harris County administered hurricane relief efforts

We have been critical of the decisions of the City of Houston and of Harris County so far as their uses of federal CDBG funds intended to assist victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.On top of the inappropriate use of the funds it now seems the city has been extremely slow to put the funds to use.

WRONG PROGRAM PRIORITIES

Neither the city or the county has proposed to expend any of the funds to directly help the Katrina evacuees with their critical housing needs. Instead, the funds are allocated to reimburse the city for expanded police enforcement in areas where large numbers of Katrina evacuees were living, to a program to reimburse landlords for repairs to apartments and to reimburse the county for the cost of MHMR services, counseling and jails.

A third of Houston’s CDBG recovery funds are explicitly devoted to incarcerating evacuees as part of a broad public safety program to increase police presence at apartment developments with high evacuee populations. The “Evacuee Public Services” program anticipates arresting about 20% of the total evacuees remaining in the city. The City of Houston’s draft amendment to the Texas Action Plan for Disaster Recovery to use CDBG recovery funds states: “It is anticipated that approximately 20,000 evacuees will be incarcerated in the County jail as a result of the proposed Multi-Family Community Liaison Program.”

In another twist on an already problematic recovery strategy, the Houston Chronicle discovered last year that at least one of the apartment complexes to be funded by the CDBG public safety program would not even be housing evacuees. The landlord, it turned out, had chosen not to participate in the DHAP program. While the Harris County Housing Authority told the Chronicle they would provide relocation assistance to tenants at this and other developments that pulled out of the evacuee housing assistance program, the agency had no money to help pay for security and utility deposits, according to Guy Rankin, the housing authority’s executive director. This situation illustrates how two major failures of hurricane recovery have intersected to tragically deny needy evacuees housing assistance: the misuse of federal CDBG recovery funds, and a poorly designed federal temporary assistance program that leaves evacuees in unstable housing that can be lost to the whims of a landlord.

SLOW EXPENDITURES

A status report from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs on the funds allocated to Houston and Harris County reports a very slow expenditure rate.

The City of Houston has expended only 33% of its $42,000,000 allocation through June 2008. The Housing Safety Component has expended 60.32% of its $20,000,000 allocation.  The Apartments to Standards program was also allocated $20,000,000 and is 9% expended.

Harris County has expended even less, 2.80% of its $21,000,000 allocation.