Five Things You Need to Know About Climate Change and Public Housing

Sep 25, 2019

As National Preparedness Month comes to a close, we’re focusing our Housing is Health blog on the link between housing and the effects of the climate crisis. Healthcare professionals can advocate for patients experiencing housing instability or hardship by providing personal preparedness guidance, continuity of care during natural disasters, and assistance with accessing community resources that support stable, affordable housing.

1. Natural disasters displace communities.

Natural disasters – like floods, hurricanes, and wildfires – can have wide-ranging, long-term structural and economic impacts. Hurricane Katrina, for example, demonstrated that disaster events can cripple communities and stifle recovery for decades to come. Although the community is still recovering, it was in the immediate aftermath of Katrina that residents of the Gulf Coast experienced the hurricane’s most devastating effects. According to a Brookings Institute report, over a million residents of the region were displaced by the storm, with some facing prolonged stays in motels, shelters, or temporary housing. Many residents were able to return to their homes within a few days, but those who already experienced socio-economic adversity faced seemingly insurmountable challenges. Home repairs were well outside many families’ financial resources, available housing shrunk, and already-compromised public housing buildings were destroyed. Low-income families impacted by Hurricane Katrina still struggle to regain what was lost. In the years since, we’ve seen this phenomenon with increasing frequency, in Puerto Rico, Texas, and the Southeastern U.S. Experts acknowledge that this trend will only worsen as climate change accelerates and aggravates natural disasters across the globe.

2. Climate-related heat waves disproportionately affect residents of public housing.

As global temperatures continue to rise, specific regions are facing more frequent and prolonged heat waves. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that extreme heat kills over 600 people across the U.S. each year – a number that is expected to grow as the climate crisis worsens. Heat waves are especially dangerous for already vulnerable populations, like children, people with disabilities, and senior citizens. Despite this risk, and the over-representation of these populations in public housing, public housing authorities are not mandated to provide air conditioners to residents of federally-supported housing, or maintain utility costs associated with air conditioner use. The vast majority (75%) of residents of public housing have extremely low incomes, a barrier that not only limits access to air conditioning units, but restricts residents’ ability to financially manage ongoing utility costs. Some cities have launched programs aimed at addressing this disparity, like the New York City Public Housing Authority’s pilot project announced in the summer of 2019. Yet as heat waves become more commonplace in America’s largest cities, something as simple as air conditioning can tip the scales of survival for millions.

3. Low-income families can’t afford to avoid disasters.

In September of 2018, The Guardian reported that low-income residents of Flagstaff, Arizona are in the throes of “climate gentrification,” a term that is used to describe an increasingly common consequence of the climate crisis. As the effects of global warming (including more natural disasters and heat waves) are felt across the country, wealthier individuals residing in areas of greatest impact are able to relocate to relatively safe, risk-free areas (like Flagstaff). Low-income families with limited financial means are effectively “stuck” in disaster-prone neighborhoods, while the influx of wealth to relocation zones raises rent prices and property values. Like its original namesake, climate gentrification has a tendency to displace those already at increased socio-economic risk, including populations with a higher likelihood of adverse effects due to the climate crisis and related natural disasters.

4. The affordable housing crisis will worsen with climate change.

America is undergoing an affordable housing crisis. The problem is twofold: there is a shortage of available housing for low-income families, and the cost of housing across the U.S. has steadily outpaced wage growth. The effects of global warming are set to exacerbate this growing crisis, as individuals at or below the poverty line spend more and more on rent with less income to spare on emergency preparedness and recovery. As climate gentrification and climate-related migration accelerate, population changes will crowd and increase the price of areas already experiencing housing shortages. Without access to reliable, affordable housing, families have little recourse when faced with displacement or other adverse natural disaster outcomes. 

5. Current public housing infrastructure can’t withstand natural disasters.

While the majority of Americans receiving federal housing assistance utilize community-based rental subsidies (like the Housing Choice Voucher program), close to two million people still reside in traditional public housing developments. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) constructed most of today’s extant public housing complexes over forty years ago, with little (if any) consistent funding for upkeep and improvement. As a result, residents of traditional public housing are particularly susceptible to the damage caused by natural disasters. These vulnerable structures house populations at an increased risk for the climate crisis’ effects, including senior citizens and people with disabilities. An interdisciplinary approach will be necessary to mitigate ongoing effects of global warming, including renewed investment in our public housing infrastructure.

The climate crisis is creating new patient needs that will only worsen as time goes on. What can health centers do to support patients before and during natural disasters?

  • Build a robust emergency management plan that ensures continuity of care for all patients.
  • Incorporate personal preparedness resources as part of regular patient care.
  • Screen patients for housing instability and connect them to community resources.
  • Join advocacy efforts that support fair housing policies for low-income individuals and their families. 
  • Partner with local public housing authorities on joint preparedness efforts.
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