Oct 5, 2022 - Energy & Environment

The post-storm affordable housing crisis

Illustration of a "For Rent" sign under water.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Affordable housing in the U.S. typically diminishes after a disaster, and experts expect parts of southwest Florida will see the same following Hurricane Ian.

The big picture: It's a pattern that exacerbates inequities in relief and recovery efforts — and leaves thousands with nowhere to go.

  • “The quantity of affordable housing shrinks after every type of disaster,” Michelle Meyer, disaster recovery researcher and director of Texas A&M’s Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center, told Axios.
  • This applies to major disaster events — like Hurricanes Katrina, Florence and Ida — and smaller ones, like the 2013 fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas.
  • In all of these cases, people were left unhoused, rental prices spiked in response to a surge in demand and many were forced to permanently relocate in order to afford to live.

A number of factors contribute to the reduction in affordable housing — defined as costing 30% or less of a household’s income — after a disaster.

  • For one, affordable housing units are largely built in more vulnerable areas, like floodplains, and at a lower quality. That means they’re more likely to suffer damage from disasters, like more powerful and rapidly strengthening hurricanes.
  • Rental units, which are the slowest to rebuild post-disaster, also make up a significant portion of affordable housing.
  • Public housing and subsidized housing usually take years to recover, largely because of timelines in long-term federal funding distribution.
  • And mobile homes are exceedingly vulnerable to damage from disasters.

Along Florida's southwest coast, parts of which experienced catastrophic damage from Ian, affordable housing options were already scarce — and are now likely to diminish further in the wake of the storm.

  • Disasters disproportionately impact lower-income renters, which a 2017 Harvard report found are more likely to be people of color.
  • 28% of renter households in Lee County are low-income and cost-burdened, or paying at least 40% of income toward rent, according to a 2022 report by the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies.
  • And 26% of Black families in Lee County live in poverty, twice the rate of white households in the area, as reported by Capital B news.

Of note: One of the places devastated by Ian was Lee County's Cape Coral — where every city structure may have experienced damage from the storm — and nearly 10% of the roughly 200,000 residents fall below the federal poverty line.

  • The county and private development firm ReVital Development Group were preparing to break ground this fall on a 92-unit affordable housing complex in Cape Coral — which is expected to be the area’s first “truly affordable rental community” in decades, as reported by the News-Press.

What they're saying: Michael Allan, president of ReVital Development Group, told Axios in a written statement — provided through the city of Cape Coral — that "while it is still too early" in Ian damage assessments to know for sure, they don't foresee any development delays.

  • The City of Cape Coral also shared a statement with Axios saying they'll be working with state and federal agencies to provide housing assistance to low-income residents in the storm's aftermath.
  • "However, we recognize that affordable housing was a challenge to our residents and will be exacerbated by Hurricane Ian," per the statement.

Yes, but: According to Texas A&M's Meyer, the onus falls on local officials to make sure affordable housing remains a priority for the construction companies coming in to rebuild after a disaster — which is usually not the case.

  • "Communities really have to put a lot of effort to maintain public housing stock post-disaster," Meyer told Axios. "And unfortunately, many don't have the political will to do that."

Facing years of recovery ahead — with at least 1,700 people still in shelters across the state — some expect development priorities across Florida's southwest communities to reflect that disconnect.

  • “I see a reduction in our affordable housing moving forward with this and a delay for plans for it,” said Jennifer Fagenbaum, executive director at Family Promise of South Sarasota County, a nonprofit that provides shelter and housing aid to local families in need.
  • As it stands, Fagenbaum told Axios "there really isn't any" affordable housing in the region to begin with. She's not optimistic that rebuilding efforts following Ian will mitigate that problem.
  • "There are going to be so many people, either renters or homeowners, without a home for quite a while."
Go deeper