Emergency Assistance is Not Enough to Protect Renters from Climate Change

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Evidence shows that extreme weather events are increasing in frequency, duration, and strength, putting all of us at a high risk of damage from climate-related disasters. However, according to a recent study, America’s Rental Housing, published by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, rental units in the United States are located in areas with even higher risk.

Renters bear the brunt of natural disasters, yet policymaking protections increasingly leave renters behind. While federal rental assistance during the pandemic is rising, there are still gaps in access for renters who live in increasingly disaster-prone areas.

Across all land use types, nonprofit research group First Street Foundation identified 244,842 properties at substantial risk of flooding (within their 100-year flood area) in Harris, Fort Bend, and Montgomery Counties — 30% higher than current FEMA estimates of 188,162.

First Street’s model also found 60,411 properties are at risk of flooding in Fort Bend County compared to 13,227 identified by FEMA (primarily due to incorporating the chance of levee failure in their models). By 2050, they estimate that one in seven properties in this three-county area will have a substantial flooding risk.

On top of this general trend toward greater flood risk, additional data indicate that renters are on the front lines of the climate crisis. According to the America’s Rental Housing study and the latest FEMA data, 40% percent of the nation’s rental stock (17.6 million units) occupy areas with at least moderate expected annual losses from natural disasters. Six million units are in census tracts with high or very high expected annual losses. In coastal areas like Harris County, 46% of occupied housing are rental properties. These units include a concentration of Houston’s low-cost apartments and subsidized housing.

After disasters, the rental housing stock diminishes as many residents need new, undamaged places to live. For renters looking to leave, market conditions limit their options as demand increases and affordability shrinks.

Low or limited-income renters are more likely to be cost-burdened and live in subpar housing units than non-renters. Additionally, tenants also rely on their landlord to make repairs or retrofits, leaving them especially vulnerable to the physical effects of a natural disaster. Due to financial limitations and low affordable housing stock, they also have difficulty finding new housing. As a result, many renters remain in units unprepared for the next disaster, like a flood or an extended freeze.

In addition, small landlords, who own over 30% of our region’s affordable housing stock*, face increased property maintenance costs. These factors contribute to higher rents and the eventual displacement of renters from historically affordable neighborhoods.

While existing support for renters and landlords does exist, it often comes in the form of short-term emergency assistance. It does not address systemic problems like housing affordability or rental property stock. In addition, emergency assistance programs can have administrative roadblocks. In Texas, for example, some areas effectively and equitably provide emergency funding, while others struggle to distribute funds.

Further complicating matters, some tenants and landlords may not even know that assistance is available. Outreach can fall short, putting renters at risk of eviction and landlords at risk of missing mortgage payments or deferring necessary maintenance.

Finally, the dissolution of the CDC’s pandemic-related eviction moratorium in August 2021 has put renters at a higher risk of losing their homes because they no longer have formal protections against eviction.

How do we leverage solutions that best protect renters in our community?

Providing tenants with transparency surrounding the property’s flood risk is essential to informed consent in the tenant/landlord relationship. The Texas legislature agrees. As of January 1, 2022, the new Texas House Bill 531 requires landlords to disclose if the unit is located in a 100-year flood plain or has any susceptibility to flooding. This disclosure serves as a warning to renters to consider another unit or acquire insurance to protect belongings.

In addition to the new protections provided by HB531, publicly available flood risk tools like First Street Foundation’s Flood Factor allows residents to search for specific residential addresses to assess that property’s current flood risk and risk over time.

Flood Factor flood risk tool, First Street Foundation, 2022.

Spinning up new programs to further protect renters provides even more long-term safety nets to keep them housed. For example, the recently passed Infrastructure and Jobs Act provides funding for property upgrades and preparations that guard against future extreme weather events and more unpredictable climate patterns. Local governments should ensure that the programs they build using this funding in our community benefit both homeowners and tenants. The bill also gives FEMA more funding to promote coastal resilience and improve data mapping, which will keep communities more informed about their flood risk.

Exploring innovative ways to get assistance to renters as soon as possible after a disaster event empowers renters to get out of unsafe situations. For example, an Emergency Rental Voucher can provide temporary rental or relocation assistance to those families affected by home damages or immediately displaced. This type of assistance can avoid long-term housing insecurity for these households.

When designing these new programs, we can look to success stories like the Houston-Harris County Emergency Rental Assistance Program to inspire better communication between tenants and landlords.

We can also leverage the insights gained during our research for Build With Us! to create safety net programs from a human-centered perspective. For example, using a process called a “red tape run-through,” Connective dove deep into a handful of intake applications to analyze their ease of use and effectiveness from the perspective of several different users, such as non-English speakers or those new to accessing social services.

As a result, Connective found that reducing barriers to entry is one of the most significant ways that social service providers can ensure resources are distributed equitably and quickly across communities.

While emergency rental assistance has reached unprecedented levels during the pandemic, renters still face some of the most significant challenges and risks regarding weather events or disasters. The truth is that the climate crisis is moving much faster than federal assistance can, so protecting renters during “blue-sky” moments is essential to calming an inevitably chaotic future.

Contributors: Marlen Guererro

*Data encompasses Harris, Montgomery, and Fort Bend Counties.
*According to data gathered by the Landlord Working Group within the Houston Housing Stability Task Force.

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