September 20, 2017

Assessing the Impact of Hurricane Harvey on Houston’s Renters

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As the Houston area begins its long road to recovery from the catastrophic flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey, much of the focus has been on speeding relief to homeowners—immediate financial assistance to cover short-term housing needs, offering grants and loans and paying insurance claims to facilitate rebuilding, and providing mortgage relief to evacuees and owners of uninhabitable properties. These efforts are critical to helping the nation’s fourth largest metro area recover, but the very significant needs of renters should not be ignored. Indeed, as researchers at the Urban Institute noted in their analysis of the impact of the hurricane on homeowners, displaced homeowners “in need of interim housing increase competition for livable rental units.” Recovery plans must take the current and imminent needs of renters into account.

Houston itself is a city that is majority renter: over 56 percent of Houston households rented their homes, according to the 2015 American Community Survey’s 5-year estimates. Harris County, the most populous county in the metro area and which includes Houston, has a homeownership rate of under 55 percent—9 percentage points below the national rate. In fact, the Houston metropolitan area has a higher share of renter households (39.4 percent) than the nation overall (36.1 percent).

With these facts in mind, it is valuable to begin to consider the potential impact of the flooding on the multifamily rental stock. We estimate that up to 105,000 units on almost 500 medium and large multifamily properties in Harris County alone could have been affected by the flood waters. There are also 240 2–4-unit rental buildings that may have seen flooding, potentially impacting another 700 units. With approximately 675,000 renter households in Harris County, the scale of the flooding means that more than one in seven renter households in Harris County might live in directly impacted buildings. When neighboring Brazoria, Fort Bend, Galveston, and Montgomery counties are added, the number of potentially affected 2+-unit rental properties rises to nearly 1,000.

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Sources: Dartmouth Flood Observatory, county appraisal district files

If a substantial share of the rental housing stock proves uninhabitable, low- and moderate-income renters may face substantial affordability challenges. Already grappling with rent burdens and typically less wealthy than displaced homeowners who need temporary shelter, they may struggle to keep or find homes. Speeding relief to those renters will be important for ensuring an equitable recovery overall.

Congress recently allocated $7.4 billion to the Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program, which provides grants to impacted jurisdictions for assistance in starting the rebuilding and recovery process. Historically, recipients of these funds have started by focusing on homeowner assistance while lagging on rolling out programs to assist renters or address damaged rental properties. In New Jersey, the delay in providing funds for renters was the subject of a $240 million fair housing settlement, HUD’s largest. Learning from the past, we recommend that HUD require eligible jurisdictions to plan in parallel for homeowner and renter assistance programs. Grantees are obligated to submit plans to HUD; any recovery plan that includes a housing element should have provisions for addressing the recovery needs of both homeowners and renters.

 

Methodological Note:

These estimates use data from the Dartmouth Flood Observatory (DFO) to identify the maximal extent of the flooding (as of August 31, 2017) and the most recent version of county-level appraisal files to identify multifamily parcels. The two DFO-provided geotifs were converted to shapefiles. Parcel-level shapefiles from Brazoria, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, and Montgomery counties were joined to appraisal data. Multifamily parcels were extracted from the data based on state-level land use classifications. We identified parcels that intersected with flooded land using a 250-foot buffer around the outline of each flood polygon.