Rental housing most vulnerable in Hurricane Ike shortchanged in reconstruction plan

Renters and rental housing were particularly hard hit by Hurricane Ike. Yet renters and rental housing needs are being shortchanged by local officials as they make decisions on how to allocate federal CDBG dollars for hurricane rebuilding.

Thanks to the research of graduate students in community and regional planning at the University of Texas at Austin we have data on storm vulnerability and the demographic characteristics of the Galveston County population. An example of their work are the maps below.

The first map shows vulnerability to tropical storm and hurricane damage. The darker red areas are vulnerable to damage from relatively minor tropical storms and category one hurricanes. The yellow areas would only be impacted by a catastrophic category five hurricane.

The lower map shows in the darkest shades the areas where half or more of the population are renters.

The point is that there is a very high correlation between areas that are the most vulnerable to tropical storms and hurricanes and and the areas containing extremely high proportions of renters.

Galveston_renter

At the time of Hurricane Ike, 53.9% of the Galveston city population lived in richer occupied housing units. Yet the hurricanes impact on the city’s renter population has never been adequately acknowledged.

The area of Galveston sustaining the highest flood waters is comprised of census tracts with 66.8% or more renter households. According to the university report, the housing within this area was generally constructed between 1951 in 1961. Lying north of Broadway Boulevard, these heavily impacted areas are also where the city’s family public housing was located before it was destroyed by Hurricane Ike.

The City of Galveston’s property damage assessment indicates that the average values for parcels assessed as substantially damaged or destroyed are less than half the average value of all parcels in the city.

The disaster recovery plan for the State of Texas permits local political jurisdictions to determine how federal CDBG disaster relief funds will be used. The City of Galveston has determined to heavily target the portion of funds the City has set aside for housing reconstruction to owner occupied housing.

$104 million was set aside by the City for owner occupied reconstruction. $25 million has been reserved to partially fund the reconstruction of 569 public housing units destroyed by the hurricane and a mere $7 million has been made available for the restoration of rental housing.

Keep in mind the facts at almost 54% of the pre-hurricane population were renters and, as we have seen, the census tracts with high proportions of rental housing where those that sustained the greatest damage in the hurricane.

The City has proposed imposing additional restrictions on the use of rental housing reconstruction funds that will further restrict rental reconstruction. To qualify for the money, landlords must be Galveston residents and cannot apply to have more than four units repaired. Unless they meet the federal guidelines for the low- to moderate-income classification, they must equally match the city’s contribution for repairs.

These restrictions will have the effect of preventing renters displaced by the hurricane from being able to return to Galveston by finding affordable rental housing. While the idea of rewarding absentee slumlords by providing them public funds for rebuilding their rental housing is indeed repugnant, the city’s failure to come up with an alternative plan to re-house the enormous numbers of Hurricane Ike survivors who were with low income renters is irresponsible.

While the details of the Galveston plan for housing are extremely sketchy, we know next to nothing about the housing plans for other communities in Galveston County. But this same focus on providing funds to homeowners while shortchanging the needs of renters is likely, for political reasons, to be a pattern that is repeated in other communities.