Elizabeth Fussell is a professor in the Sociology Department of Washington State University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. Her research focuses on migration and population change in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
On May 20, 2013, a tornado with peak winds of 210 miles per hour struck Moore, Oklahoma, killing 24 people, injuring 377 more, destroying 1,150 homes and causing an estimated two billion dollars in damage. These impacts were indiscriminate, but the process of rebuilding is not. The City of Moore has an opportunity to rebuild better and fairly by remembering that both homeowners and renters need recovery assistance, but assistance will be different for each.
After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated parts of Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005, state officials chose to prioritize the repair of owner-occupied homes over rented ones. According to a study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, out of 489,000 homeowner units damaged in these two states 62 percent were repaired or replaced with federal funding. By contrast, out of the 247,000 rental units that were damaged, only 18 percent received federal recovery money. Consequently, low-income, minority, and female headed households were more likely to be displaced from their homes and communities, making pre-disaster inequalities worse.
The lessons learned from the 2005 hurricane season apply to Moore. According to the latest American Community Survey data, in this city of 53,845 residents, owners live in 75 percent of the 21,296 occupied housing units. Of these, three-quarters have a mortgage. Since mortgage companies expect homeowners to have insurance, at a minimum, about half of households will receive insurance payments to repair or replace their home, as will homeowners without mortgages who have maintained insurance coverage. Homeowners in need of additional funds for repairs are eligible for low-interest disaster loans of up to $200,000 from the Small Business Administration and up to $40,000 for property replacement. In contrast, the 25 percent of renters may apply for up to $40,000 in low-interest loans to replace property, but they are unlikely to have their rental homes repaired in a timely fashion so they can return. However, if Moore is like Louisiana and Mississippi, displaced renters are unlikely to be able to return home because it takes much longer for owners of damaged rental property to make repairs.
This difference in housing and access to recovery assistance between homeowners and renters exacerbates pre-disaster economic and social inequality. In Moore, 63 percent of households with incomes below poverty are rented. Some types of householders are more likely to rent: 44 percent of those with less than a high school degree, 46 percent of female heads of families, 42 percent of those under 35 years old, 31 percent of those with dependent children, 53 percent of African-Americans and 32 percent of Hispanics rent their homes. These residents will be least able to find housing in Moore in the near future.
Renters may find affordable housing further from Moore, but in relocating, many will likely lose daily contact with family, friends, and neighbors and the benefits of recovering in their home community. When disaster survivors recover in place, they have the opportunity to work through traumas, receive social and emotional support, maintain employment, and keep their children in the same schools. By prioritizing the repair and new construction of affordable rental properties, renters will be better able to return to Moore.
Oklahoma has an opportunity to learn from Louisiana and Mississippi’s experiences to produce a more equitable recovery in Moore and other disaster-affected communities by quickly restoring affordable rental housing. For starters, the Small Business Administration could streamline a program for rental property owners to get rental housing back on-line quickly. Local governments or non-governmental organizations could also work with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to build new affordable rental housing. More radically, instead of providing temporary “FEMA trailers” to displaced homeowners or renters, FEMA could disburse grants for “Katrina cottages” – small, affordable, and permanent prefabricated homes. The rehabilitation of existing rental housing or construction of new affordable rental housing would stimulate the economy by providing employment and investment opportunities. It would also ensure that Moore can continue to be a home to many kinds of families and households for years to come.
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