A lesson for Harvey from the Katrina housing recovery

I’m reading and retweeting the Harvey news, thinking of Hurricane Katrina.

[Update 8/28/17: This post is a “lessons learned” comment, not current advice. For early news you can use, see:

Although Houston had no initial mass evacuation, some people in the Harvey flood zone are going to need temporary places to live if their housing has become unusable, especially as mold begins to form.

Whatever keeps people closest to their own homes is best — if people in low-density areas can get trailers to live in next to their houses or apartments, for example, that’s great — but it seems likely some may have to leave the area outright in search of a safe place to stay while they recover.

For those kinds of moves, individualized conventional housing is always better than mass states of exception — camps, barracks or stadiums. Remember the Superdome and shudder.

With all that in mind, I want to note a lesson from twelve years ago:

When Katrina hit in late August 2005, I was blogging from San Francisco about federal subsidized housing for a trade magazine, Affordable Housing Finance. It has been some time since I’ve written professionally about housing regulatory issues on that level, so I don’t know how many lessons from Katrina may already have been worked into current federal policy. Your mileage from the following may vary.

But in case it’s helpful, I want to talk about a problem with the Katrina housing recovery. One whose memory got buried under later public discussion of the worse errors and crimes in that recovery process.

The problem is that in 2005, FEMA, IRS and HUD authorities imposed a bottleneck on connections between displaced tenants in need, and public officials in areas outside the storm damage who wanted to make individual open units available as emergency housing. They required, but mismanaged, a central registry system for available units of public and subsidized housing, including housing subsidized with low-income housing tax credits (LIHTC).

For example, if you ran a subsidized building in a city in Georgia where ten units had just been renovated, and those units didn’t yet have tenants, you could offer those units to Katrina evacuees. Announcements were made providing addresses of Web sites and email accounts to receive the offer. But then time passed, and it was not clear that the units were being promptly offered to anyone in need.

Part of the problem in the September 2005 Katrina recovery was that owners and managers of available tax credit properties were required to list them on particular emergency management sites, mainly one run by the SWERN regional disaster management entity, to receive tax waivers for use of LIHTC properties as disaster housing. The National Multi-Housing Council eventually helped in getting some clarity on this — it ended up advising housing managers to list the properties both in the officially required places and also with an online referral entity that had actually begun to work pretty well.

The online referral entity that best combined authoritativeness with effectiveness in 2005 was the “hurricanehousing” referral site, created by New Orleans area university and real estate people and belatedly adopted by federal emergency responders. That, and Craigslist, and a few other privately created registry efforts, finally started to connect actual displaced people with actual small-scale offers of conventional housing.

The 2005 housing referral picture was all needlessly difficult, and it seems likely that the confusion caused some people to end up in those notorious camps who could have ridden out the recovery in individual conventional housing units instead.

Another emergency measure taken in 2005 — one that probably wasn’t used sufficiently — was to open up closed foreclosed houses owned by Fannie Mae as emergency housing. HUD itself also is an owner of foreclosed houses, and I don’t know if those were used for storm evacuees then. It would be worth finding that out, and worth considering whether it can be done now.

In case it’s worth reading how the confusion developed and was eventually addressed, here is the archive of my September 2005 AHF housing blog.

Hoping people have learned. Hoping it will help that we now have far better referral systems run by entities like AirBnb.

Hoping this time better housing connections can save some lives and keep some people out of awful conditions in the next several weeks.

[Update August 28, 2017: Texas Appleseed, working with the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, published a densely informative “lessons learned” paper two years ago: “Lessons from Texas: 10 Years of Disaster Recovery Examined.” Detailed advice on structures, rules and application processes for relief and recovery programs and why it is especially a mistake to waive civil rights and fair housing rules.]


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