Disparities in disaster aid: an uphill battle for poor and minority renters - Affordable Housing Online

Disparities in disaster aid: an uphill battle for poor and minority renters

By on September 12th, 2019

Tagged As: Affordable Housing News, Editorials

Flooded area in Carolina, Puerto Rico, after the path of Hurricane Maria in the island. (Photo by Sgt. Jose Ahiram Diaz-Ramos)

Low-income renters suffer the most when disasters strike, and they continue to suffer in the rebuilding process. From the cost of evacuating ahead of disasters, to the frustration of having aid applications denied, low-income renters face many more challenges than households in affluent neighborhoods. Recent moves by the Trump administration have made it even harder to access critical relief and recovery funds, leaving low-income renters even more vulnerable as they try to rebuild their lives.

At the federal level, HUD has delayed funding for Puerto Rico that is supposed to help the territory weather future storms, affecting millions of low-income households. The Trump administration also recently shifted $155 million away from FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE will use the funds to pay for more immigrant detention facilities on the southern border.

FEMA uses the Disaster Relief fund to pay for immediate responses and services following a natural disaster. This is critical funding that helps save lives and shelter families. The administration announced the shift in funds just days before hurricane Dorian was approaching the U.S. Virgin Islands and possibly Puerto Rico. Although this move risked leaving FEMA short on funds to deal with Dorian’s aftermath, administration officials assured that there would be enough resources to help the communities that might be damaged by Dorian.

In February 2019, Congress had approved $16.5 billion for disaster mitigation aid for eight states and the territories of Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands. These funds are in addition to the emergency aid already approved by Congress. They support projects that will protect areas from future disaster damage, such as hardening electrical grids. Congress set a September 4th deadline for HUD to let states know how to access their funds. However, Puerto Rico was left out of HUD’s notice

HUD’s notice provides the procedures for each disaster area to document their needs and access their rebuilding money. Leaving Puerto Rico out of the notice means that those funds will not be available be available for some time. House Democrats say HUD violated the law by missing the deadline for Puerto Rico, and will begin investigations.

House Democrats say HUD violated the law by missing the deadline for Puerto Rico, and will begin investigations.

Administration officials pointed to instability in the Puerto Rican government to defend the delay. However, Congress built in oversight requirements for the funds. Also, although the administration had expressed concerns about the Virgin Islands’ capacity to use their funds properly, they were still included in the funding notice.

Low-income Puerto Ricans, especially renters, have suffered much over the two years since Hurricane Maria. At the same time, they have experienced significant delays in receiving aid. Of the more than $40 billion Congress has approved to help the island and its residents, only $22 billion has been allocated. This is far below the $92 billion president Trump falsely claims that Puerto Rico has received.

Evacuations hit the wallets of low-income renters hard. Gas, food and lodging are costly for those on tight budgets. Worse, most low-income renters are in hourly wage jobs. Not only do they have the extra costs of evacuation, they also lose income when they have to miss work. After the disaster, their employers may not provide flexible schedules so that workers can make meetings with FEMA officials or apply for other disaster aid. Losing a car to flooding may cost workers their jobs, especially when public transportation may not be accessible or reliable after a disaster.

Renters also find themselves at the mercy of landlords to fix their units, and more likely to depend on FEMA assistance to start rebuilding their lives. This can take some time, especially if FEMA denies the initial application for assistance. On the other hand, upper income homeowners tend to rebuild sooner. They are more likely to have insurance, savings, and employers allowing job flexibility. After major disasters, more affluent neighborhoods tend to rebuild faster than poor and minority neighborhoods.

Once FEMA is able to provide relief funds, low-income renters face additional hurdles. Low-income households, especially from minority groups, receive far less aid than white upper income households. After Hurricane Harvey, researchers found that white families in higher income Houston neighborhoods received an average of about $60,000 per person from FEMA. By contrast, African-American families in poorer neighborhoods received an average of $84 per person.

Low-income minorities and renters are also denied assistance at higher rates than white, upper income households. According to a survey of Hurricane Harvey survivors, only 32% of African-American respondents said they were able to get the aid they needed, compared with 52% of white respondents and 46% of Hispanic respondents. And these response rates got worse with Hurricane Maria, where FEMA denied 60% of the initial applications for aid.

Low-income minorities and renters are being denied FEMA assistance at higher rates than white, upper income households.

Local management of rebuilding efforts can also increase inequality. When cities plan new measures to limit the impact of future disasters, they want to target the most vulnerable areas. However, they focus on where the most claims to FEMA have been made and what areas received the most assistance. Since affluent, white households have lower FEMA denial rates and receive higher amounts of assistance, their neighborhoods are more likely to benefit from new public works projects. In addition, the Army Corps of Engineers uses a cost-benefit analysis when deciding where to place their projects. This prioritizes protecting areas with the greatest value, and wealthier areas tend to benefit the most.

Cities also prepare for future disasters by removing properties from harm’s way. FEMA provides local jurisdictions with money to buy out properties in flood zones and other vulnerable areas. Cities can then turn those properties into green space or use them for additional flood mitigation projects. Why keep rebuilding if that area will just keep flooding over and over? However, these property buyouts have overwhelmingly favored upper income white households. National Public Radio analyzed 40,000 buyouts funded by FEMA and most were in neighborhoods that were 85% white and non-Hispanic. By contrast, 62% of all U.S. households are non-hispanic white. 

As people wait for their homes to be rebuilt, or to find a new place to live permanently, they are still vulnerable to being dislocated. Approximately 135,000 Puerto Ricans relocated to the mainland after Hurricane Maria, and many were living in motels paid for by FEMA’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance program. In 2018, homelessness rates increased by double digits in Massachusetts and Connecticut. These states were among a handful of states that received a large number of Maria survivors. The rise in homelessness coincided with FEMA’s decision to end hotel payments for Maria survivors.

Because the rebuilding has been so slow in Puerto Rico, the assistance period had been extended three times. In September 2018, about a year after the hurricane, a federal judge upheld FEMA’s decision to stop making the hotel payments. Almost 1,000 Maria survivors found themselves forced to leave their motels. Some have pointed out that Maria survivors seem to be treated differently than survivors of other disasters. Hotel vouchers were available for 27 months after hurricane Katrina damaged New Orleans, but only 11 months after hurricane Maria.

Low-income renters face many obstacles as they evacuate for a disaster and then work to rebuild their lives. Having the information needed to secure assistance can make a big difference. For more information about preparing for a disaster, and finding housing assistance after disasters, read Affordable Housing Online’s Housing Guide for Victims of Natural Disasters.

Published by

Chris Holden

Chris Holden, Affordable Housing Online's Senior Housing Analyst, has been in the affordable housing field for 25 years. Originally from Keene, New Hampshire, he has worked as a researcher, policy analyst, lender, trainer and real estate developer. He also taught political science at Keene State College. He is focused on making housing policies more accessible for low-income renters.