December 7, 2018

Climate Change Disproportionately Affects Low-Income Communities

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A Houston family moves into temporary housing after their home is ravaged by Hurricane Harvey.

In the coming years and decades, climate change will disrupt economic growth, public health, and ecosystems, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment published by the Trump administration last month. Enterprise strongly applauds the assessment’s emphasis on the disproportionate impacts of climate change on low-income communities, communities of color and other vulnerable populations unprepared to cope with these disruptions.

While we have always dealt with natural hazards, the assessment provides sobering detail on how climate change is already exacerbating existing environmental challenges in ways that will likely have cascading consequences for our economy and health. This assessment has real implications for the affordable housing and community development field.

As we saw in the devastating hurricanes affecting Texas, Puerto Rico, the Carolinas, and the Florida panhandle as well as the wildfires in California in the past two years, low-income communities and communities of color are less likely to have the resources and capacity to prepare for and recover from extreme climate events. Evacuation alone can be expensive; given that fewer than 40% of Americans have enough savings to cover a $1,000 emergency, most families, and especially lower-income households, need federal, state, and local support for preparedness and recovery costs like raising a home above the base flood elevation, home repairs, and mold remediation.

Immediately following disasters, FEMA aid is more oriented to homeowners than to renters, and housing shortages following disasters result in rent increases that low-income households are least able to afford. Low-income households are also more likely to live in areas with greater exposure to natural hazards and less likely to live and work in structures that are resilient to these natural hazards. As we’ve seen in southeast Texas, disaster recovery funds often disproportionately flow towards higher income communities, with the result of depriving low-income communities of resources to recover. The longer it takes resources to get to communities, the longer it takes for people to go back to work and kids to return to school.

Enterprise has over a decade of experience providing technical assistance and capacity building support to local agencies and organizations helping their communities recover stronger from disasters. Enterprise advocates for disaster recovery and hazard mitigation funds to be directed towards communities with greatest unmet needs and the least capacity to prepare and recover from disasters and then used to rebuild communities more resilient to disasters.

Health and Climate Change

Climate change will also have adverse effects on health by increasing the intensity and frequency of natural disasters that indirectly cause health problems, especially among low-income individuals who are already more likely to have chronic health conditions and greater exposure to harmful pollution. In other words, climate change exacerbates people’s pre-existing health conditions. Climate change will cause more residential flooding in some areas, making mold a greater health risk, as seen in homes flooded by Hurricanes Harvey and Florence.

More frequent wildfires will periodically degrade air quality, as seen in northern California with the Camp Fire. These health risks will disproportionately harm low-income families, who are more likely to have chronic respiratory conditions. Well-designed, safe housing is known to have positive impacts on health by protecting people from pollutants and extreme weather.

Climate change is already causing more frequent and extreme heat waves, but many low-income households live in homes without air conditioning and sufficient insulation to keep cool, increasing risk of heat stress illnesses like heat stroke. Heat waves also increase demand for air conditioning and, therefore, raise energy costs. Low-income households, particularly in rural areas, are energy cost-burdened.

The Enterprise Green Communities Criteria is an industry standard for conferring the benefits of energy-efficiency and sustainability on residents. Enterprise is in the process of updating the criteria so that it will incorporate disaster resilience and a Net Zero Energy (NZE) target for buildings certified under the criteria starting in 2020. Ensuring that all people live in energy-efficient homes with air-conditioning, free of toxins and mold, and away from pollution sources will help mitigate climate change disruptions and produce better health outcomes.

Disaster Resilience and Climate Change Adaptation

The string of devastating natural disasters in 2017 and 2018 seem to have finally started elevating disaster resilience and climate change adaptation as a public policy priority among lawmakers in Washington and in state capitols. The assessment finds that climate change and disaster mitigation and adaptation efforts are expanding but are currently insufficient to avoid major costs to our economy, environment, and health in the coming decades.

Lawmakers and leaders at the federal, state, and local levels must better incentivize and compel property owners to mitigate their properties to risk and ensure there are sufficient resources to protect renters from disasters. The federal government must also support states and communities to protect residents from harm, upgrade critical infrastructure, and better incorporate green infrastructure into their land-use planning.

In addition to FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program, HUD’s Community Development Block Grant–Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) Program helps communities invest in more resilient housing and infrastructure through mitigation and adaptation planning, nature-based storm-water management systems, building elevations, home buyouts, and wildfire-resistant retrofits. These programs should be strengthened so that they can be used more effectively with other funding sources. Additionally, Congress should permanently authorize the CDBG-DR Program to speed up recovery and better serve households and communities hit hardest by disasters. Adaptation and mitigation projects that build community resilience need to be affordable for all communities and residences.

To help Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands recover from Hurricane Maria and rebuild in a way that expands their capacity to address long-term community needs, Enterprise has launched the Climate Strong Islands Initiative (CSII). The CSII is building the capacity of local organizations and government partners so they make the most of recovery dollars. CSII will also publish a manual in 2019 Keep Safe Puerto Rico: A Guide for Resilient Housing Design and Construction in Island Communities, which will help designers, developers, builders, home and apartment owners, and regulators incorporate resilient building strategies into construction and management to make structures and residents safer to extreme weather.

Engaging All Sectors and Communities

Since climate change adaptation is an iterative process, according to the assessment, existing organizational and sector policies and strategies need integrate in climate change considerations. As such, the affordable housing and community development sectors need to approach disaster resilience and climate change adaptation through a cross-sector lens that anticipates how a changing climate, extreme events, ecological degradation and their cascading effects will shape housing needs.

A home is foundational for a productive life, but it is part of a broader social, economic, and environmental context. Enterprise’s Opportunity 360 platform frames community opportunity by analyzing the supply and quality of housing, health care, education, transportation, and job opportunities in a given place. Climate change adaptation in the affordable housing industry will require this whole-community approach. Organizations will need to assess the vulnerability of their properties and investments and implement strategies that reduce the exposure of structures and residents to environmental and economic hazards.

In addition, affordable housing organizations should help government agencies better engage low-income communities in developing future disaster recovery and climate adaptation plans and policies, including:

  • Educating residents about their risk to hazards like floods, wildfires, and earthquakes
  • Damage assessment criteria that more accurately reflect unmet needs as capacity to rebuild
  • Buyout and relocation programs that maintain community social capital and support disaster preparedness
  • Building and retrofitting more energy-efficient homes

Enterprise commends the assessment's emphasis on climate change’s disparate impacts on low-income communities. We support and will help realize its call to engage low-income residents in developing solutions to these complex challenges. Enterprise will continue advocating for inclusive planning and forward-looking policies that improve community resilience to natural disaster and a changing climate. The continued health and prosperity of our communities depend on resilience of other communities around us. Climate change is an unprecedented challenge that affects all of us and demands us to act now.