Public Housing Residents Face Acute Challenges When Recovering from Disasters

An article appearing in Urban Affairs, Post-Disaster Recovery Challenges of Public Housing Residents: Lumberton, North Carolina after Hurricane Matthew,” examines the unique barriers faced by public housing residents in Lumberton, North Carolina, after the town was struck by Hurricane Matthew in 2016. The hurricane damaged 267 of the 729 public housing units. One hundred and eighty-two damaged units (68%) remained unrestored two years after the hurricane. The authors found that public housing units were more vulnerable to damage than private units due to a lack of maintenance. Further, public housing residents remained displaced for longer, as the repair process was inhibited by unpredictable and limited funding and cumbersome bureaucratic requirements imposed on the Housing Authority of the City of Lumberton (HACL). The authors encourage better pre-disaster planning and greater investment in building and maintaining public housing units to ensure that cities are more disaster resilient. 

Pre-existing socioeconomic disparities, which are also known as social vulnerabilities, can influence the extent to which communities are prepared for, respond to, and recover from disasters. To analyze the social vulnerability of Lumberton neighborhoods before Hurricane Matthew, the authors used data from the American Community Survey (ACS) to develop social vulnerability scores. The scores incorporated neighborhood indicators, such as housing features, racial characteristics, poverty, educational and employment conditions, and language proficiencies. The authors also collected qualitative data from interviews with local officials and residents of public housing, as well as secondary sources, such as official documents, media content, and city plans. Finally, the study incorporated data from a longitudinal survey of 568 housing units in Lumberton to assess recovery outcomes.

Sixty-eight percent of public housing units were in neighborhoods with moderate to high social vulnerability scores leading up to Hurricane Matthew. The location of public housing units in these medium to high social vulnerability neighborhoods left public housing residents susceptible to damage and extended displacement. Of the public housing units included in the survey sample, 70% were damaged by the hurricane compared to 51% of privately-owned units. The authors also observed higher rates of abandonment and vacancy and slower repairs for public housing units compared to privately-owned units.

Insufficient and unpredictable funding, along with bureaucratic hurdles in the allocation of funds, contributed to a longer recovery process for public housing units. The Housing Authority of the City of Lumberton reported that the cost of repairing and rebuilding units far exceeded the funding allocated by FEMA. Additionally, FEMA reimbursement of repair costs was very slow. In 2018, two years after the hurricane, FEMA had only reimbursed $3.5 million of the $13 million that was approved for repair costs for the City of Lumberton. FEMA funds also required mitigation measures to be incorporated into the rebuilding process, such as relocating units outside of the floodplain, which created further delays. Lack of coordination between the state and local housing authorities also created uncertainty about how much funding would be available from other sources, such as the Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program. This lack of certainty presented further challenges for HACL in planning the restoration of units. 

The prolonged and challenging recovery process resulted in the loss of 182 public housing units, or 25% of Lumberton’s public housing stock. In interviews with residents, the authors also found that more than half of the displaced residents did not return. Many residents found accommodations with other housing authorities throughout North Carolina. However, as of 2018, there were still 82 families who had been displaced and were in need of housing.

The authors call for clearer guidance on pre-disaster planning from the federal government to ensure that affordable housing recovery is a priority in housing recovery policies. They also highlight the need for robust pre-disaster investments in the maintenance and production of public housing units to improve and expand the affordable housing stock. 

Read the report at: