by Dan Threet, NLIHC research analyst

On August 27, Hurricane Laura made landfall as a Category 4 storm in southern Louisiana, near the Texas border, as one of the most powerful to hit that area of the Gulf Coast in years. While we still wait for a final assessment of the full damage, we know that low-income households will likely shoulder a disproportionate share of the burdens of recovery. Since low-income households will have greater needs, they should be centered in any discussion of recovery.

FEMA designated 21 parishes throughout Louisiana for Individual Assistance (IA). Individual Assistance includes the Individuals and Households Program (IHP), which provides approved registrants with rental assistance; home repair assistance for homeowners; or assistance for other disaster-related needs like childcare, medical care, transportation, storage, or replacement of essential household items. These parishes are likely the most severely impacted by the storm.

Many people in these Louisiana parishes—which are home to more than 1.3 million residents—will struggle to recover from Laura. According to the American Community Survey, the poverty rate of 21% for these parishes is significantly higher than the national rate of 14%. Over 199,000 people are over age 65, and over 200,000 have disabilities. These residents are likelier to have mobility issues and special housing needs, and disruptions to utilities and normal social services can have a larger impact on their health. Nearly 506,000 residents are people of color. Minority populations are more vulnerable at all stages of disaster, due to historic and ongoing structural racism, social and economic marginalization, and underinvestment in majority-minority neighborhoods. Nearly 103,000 households live in manufactured or mobile homes, which are often more vulnerable to storm damage. Over 42,000 households lack access to a vehicle, which can make it difficult to reach Disaster Recovery Centers.

Nearly half of the renters in the area have very low incomes (50% of area median income or less), and research suggests that low-income renter households are generally more vulnerable to the harms disasters like Hurricane Laura can inflict (Lee and Van Zandt, 2018).

First, disasters exacerbate the pre-existing housing struggles low-income renters already face. Before the storm, very low-income renters in these parishes faced a shortage of more than 21,000 affordable and available rental homes, leaving them with few housing options. Damage to the housing stock limits those options even further. Rents may rise on available housing due to increased competition from temporarily displaced homeowners, and landlords who may need to recoup repair costs (Peacock et al., 2014; Rumbach & Makarewicz, 2016).

Because the lowest-income renters face a shortage of affordable housing, most pay a significant amount for their housing and have little, if anything, left to save for emergencies like Hurricane Laura. Seventy percent of extremely low-income renters in these parishes were already spending more than half of their income on housing prior to the disaster, leaving little cash on hand for food, medical needs, and housing while waiting for assistance in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

COVID-19 compounds the risks to households that are already struggling. Just between September 6 and September 20, over 2,700 new COVID-19 cases were identified in the 21 parishes designated for IA, and over 46,000 cases have been recorded since the beginning of the pandemic. Households displaced by the storm could struggle to find accommodations where social distancing is feasible, especially if adequate assistance for low-income households is not made available.

Despite these challenges, disaster recovery processes tend to further disadvantage low-income renters. FEMA’s Transitional Shelter Assistance assumes that survivors can afford fees or security deposits for shelter, and the short-term assistance often does not allow renters enough time to find permanent housing solutions. Meanwhile, research indicates that long-term recovery occurs more slowly for apartment buildings than owner-occupied single-family homes (Peacock et al., 2014).  In past disasters, CDBG-DR funds have been disproportionately allocated to homeowners.

We should adopt disaster housing recovery policies that devote greater resources to those with greater needs. For example, in the wake of a disaster, FEMA can and should enter into an interagency agreement with HUD to activate the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP) to provide direct, longer-term rental assistance to affected households. Low-income renters are not well positioned to pay higher rents for scarce available rental homes, and they need assistance for longer periods of time than FEMA’s temporary housing programs provide. In addition to DHAP, the disaster housing recovery process generally needs to be rethought from the ground up, to prioritize the needs of the least well-off. The NLIHC-led Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition’s report, “Fixing America’s Broken Housing Recovery System,” explains the comprehensive reforms that we need.

Without substantive change, this process will repeat itself as climate change spurs increasingly frequent disasters. Before the Gulf could begin to recover from Hurricane Laura, Hurricane Sally pushed into Alabama on September 14. The counties in Alabama which FEMA initially designated for IA are home to over 33,000 very low-income renter households and 108,000 people in poverty. An equitable recovery demands that we keep the focus on those who will need the most help.

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Rumbach, A., & Makarewicz, C. (2016). Affordable housing and disaster recovery: A case study of the 2013 Colorado floods. In Sapat, A. & Esnard, A.-M., eds., Coming Home After Disaster: Multiple Dimensions of Housing Recovery. Boca Raton, FL: Routledge, 99–111.