Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

How the government fails low-income renters after natural disasters

A flooded apartment complex in Katy, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston area in 2017.
Credit: Revolution Messaging/Flickr

More than two years after Hurricane Harvey dumped 60 inches of rain over southeast Texas in four days, Brenda Jones is still waiting for her life to return to normal — the way it was before the storm hit. “Everything is in God’s hands,” she told me one morning in October, her voice shaking.

The apartment Jones was renting in Aransas Pass, a town northeast of Corpus Christi, was damaged by floodwaters; mold in the walls made it unsafe for her to live there. She had only a few days to vacate, so she packed what belongings she could salvage into her car. For six months, Jones, who is in her 60s and has cancer, lived out of her car or in temporary housing, using money from a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) program that provides temporary lodging assistance. She currently lives off an income that’s less than a third of Nueces County’s median.  

The stress of losing her home exacerbated her health problems, and Jones has been in and out of the hospital since then for cancer treatments and other issues. The apartments she secured after Harvey were further away from her family, church, and doctors. She lost her car when she couldn’t keep up with monthly payments, and had to rely on others to keep her appointments. “Getting around to the doctors or church, I know I’m bothering people,” she said, close to tears. “But I needed to get those tests done.”

Now, Jones is trying to move again — this time into a senior housing community closer to her family. The apartment she’s been living in for the last year has left her feeling unsettled, and she hasn’t been able to put the past two years behind her yet. “I just want peace of mind again,” she said.

The deck is stacked against renters like Jones and other low-income, black and Hispanic renters struggling to get back on their feet after a hurricane. That’s the argument at the heart of a lawsuit filed in October on behalf of her and three other renters who were unable to secure financial assistance after the storm. The lawsuit alleges that the policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Texas General Land Office (GLO), a state agency that oversees land and mineral rights as well as disaster recovery, have had a “disparate impact on minority households” affected by the hurricane. (Both HUD and the GLO declined to comment on pending litigation.)

Housing experts, researchers, and community advocates say the lack of financial assistance for renters is a problem common in minority communities around the South and U.S. Renters in southeast Texas impacted by Harvey were predominantly black and Hispanic, while homeowners were predominantly white. Across the U.S., minority residents are nearly twice as likely to rent compared to white residents, and the rate of black, Hispanic, and Asian homeownership is lower than the national average, while the rate of white homeowners is several percentage points higher than average. Because of this disparity, in some cases more state and federal disaster aid goes to white residents who are homeowners. After Hurricane Irma hit Florida in 2017, a similar discrepancy occurred. 

“The issues that are pointed out in this [Texas] case are happening in nearly every jurisdiction after a disaster,” says Sarah Saadian, senior director of public policy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “In many ways, disaster recovery funds reinforce segregation and direct money away from poor people and people of color towards homeowners and white communities.” 

For much of U.S. history, property ownership was exclusively reserved for white citizens, who could accrue wealth on land passed down for generations, while black families were barred from federally backed mortgages, or from living on the same block as white families. The financial benefits of homeownership still aren’t evenly distributed: black homeowners in New Orleans, for example, have long been segregated into low-lying, flood-prone areas of the city. When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, black homeowners were given smaller grants from disaster relief programs than white homeowners living on higher ground. A housing center settled with the federal government for $62 million in 2011. 

“The government has been subsidizing property owners since at least the 1800s,” said Jim Elliott, a professor of sociology at Rice University who studies natural disasters and social inequalities. Before there were formalized programs like the National Flood Insurance Program, state and federal governments would sometimes waive taxes for property owners affected by any number of natural disasters: flooding in the Mississippi Valley, earthquakes in San Francisco, and wildfires in the West. 

In the November general election, Texans approved a constitutional amendment that could subtly reinforce the inequities between renters and homeowners recovering from a disaster by granting temporary tax exemptions on damaged property. In some ways, the proposition acts as a regressive tax, Elliot said. “At the state and local level, governments don’t want you to move out of their jurisdiction — if you are paying higher taxes, you probably have a higher income already.”

Federal and state disaster recovery programs do allocate funds for rebuilding rental housing, but hardly any of that money goes directly to tenants; instead, it goes to property developers or landlords tasked with repairing, rebuilding or constructing new rental units. Neither the federal government or Texas requires that rebuilt housing units should be reserved for displaced residents.

Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, visits Houston in 2018, a year after Hurricane Harvey. Credit: HUD

After Hurricane Harvey, homeowners and renters were equally likely to apply for government assistance, but renters were more likely to have their claims denied, according to a Rice University study. Those who can afford private renter’s insurance might be able to recoup losses, but the insurance industry reports that just over a third of all renters in the U.S. have any type of policy. Some early research shows that after Harvey, evictions increased in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods; a 2014 study found that after Hurricane Katrina, renters were more likely than homeowners to experience “housing loss.”

The Texas lawsuit alleges that most of the $5 billion in disaster relief is for homeowners and that the Texas General Land Office inflated the estimated financial need of homeowners by $4 billion. Renters had to prove they had $2,000 in property losses, and the agency determined that only about 38,000 were in need of assistance. The lawsuit states this calculation excluded people whose apartments were rendered uninhabitable from less severe water damage — which could mean up to 71,000 people were actually in need.

“It’s very easy to fall through the cracks, since most renters no longer have the same address,” said Carlos Martin, a researcher and fellow at the Urban Institute, adding that many people also don’t keep receipts or track of the value of their belongings in case of disasters. “Renters have a harder time finding affordable housing, they have less wealth by definition since they don’t own property. [After a disaster] it creates a spiral of financial setbacks.” 

There are many other expenses related to disaster recovery besides property loss, Martin said. “We don’t think about the loss of jobs, rise in rents, longer commutes if you’re displaced, the difficulties in turning off utility payments,” he said, “all of which would be more than the cost of a sofa you lost in a storm.” 

When it hit, Hurricane Harvey was the third 500 year-flood to hit southeast Texas in less than five years. This year, Tropical Storm Imelda pelted the city with rain again, causing record flooding. Constant rainfall earlier this year damaged homes and farms in the Mississippi Delta, and hurricanes have hit low-income communities in North Carolina and Florida hard in recent years. As flood-prone areas of the U.S. are rebuilt — as well as regions vulnerable to tornadoes, wildfires and other disasters — these inequalities deepen, according to Elliot’s research: in the years or decades after disasters, white residents tend to accumulate more wealth as federal assistance brings more private investment, driving up property values in predominantly white neighborhoods. Black residents in the same county lose wealth.

In extreme cases, like the coastal Texas city of Galveston, public housing for low-income renters — many of them people of color — is the last thing to be rebuilt. In the decade since Hurricane Ike, the city’s median income rose by $6,000, according to the Texas Tribune, while the city’s black population dropped by 15% as residents were displaced. In New Orleans, Katrina displaced a significant portion of the city’s black middle class. After Hurricane Sandy pummeled New Jersey in 2012, civil rights groups and housing advocates won a settlement on behalf of low-income, minority renters who were left out of disaster relief programs. The federal government agreed to provide direct funding to renters, re-review denied aid applications, and offer translation services for non-English speaking applicants. 

Damaged and displaced belongings after Hurricane Harvey. Credit: Jill Carlson/Flickr

In July, Houston Congressman Al Green introduced the Reforming Disaster Recovery Act of 2019, which could help introduce these types of changes in other areas of the country. The bill calls for more transparency around demographic data collected by FEMA and other agencies; a streamlined application for aid programs; and an equitable distribution of aid between homeowners, renters, and the homeless. 

The bill is up for a vote in the House and Senate. In the meantime, the Texas lawsuit could be the only way for Jones, and other renters like her in the state, to claim their fair share of disaster relief. As Jones struggles to find yet another apartment to live in — one she can afford, that’s near her family — the city around her is moving on. 

“They help the people they want to help,” she said. “I can see the money in [other parts of the] city,” she said of Aransas Pass. “But not here. It’s been a roller coaster.”

Amal Ahmed is an Austin-based journalist who primarily covers climate change and environmental justice.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Jim Elliott’s name.