I’m sure most people do not think of renters as an especially vulnerable population, from an emergency management or any other perspective. However, south Louisiana’s (particularly the New Orleans area’s) recovery from Hurricane Katrina, and now the state of Louisiana’s recovery from the 2016 floods, makes it clear that without particular attention to renters who have been affected, recovery of the entire community moves along more slowly. Prior studies have documented that “disasters tend to disproportionately damage rental and low-income housing, which also tends to be rebuilt more slowly,…”. It is an issue that has become more prominent in the recent past and may be a trend we continue to observe into the near future. As emergency planners and managers, we need to take this population into account in our work.
Let’s look at some numbers. According to Escambia County’s (Florida) Long Term Recovery plan from Hurricane Ivan, renters comprised the majority of applicants for emergency housing assistance from FEMA. This despite the fact that the fraction of renters in Pensacola was 29.9%, about the Florida average and below the US average of 33.1% in 2005. Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, 71.5% of the 188,251 housing units in Orleans parish were damaged. At that time, the percentage of renters in New Orleans was 36.37%, a little more than 3% higher than the US average.
What has happened to the renter vs. homeowner balance since then? According to a report by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies released in June 2015, the rate of homeownership had fallen for 8 years in a row, down to 63.7% in 1Q 2015, from a peak of 69% in 2004. Similar results are reflected in a report from the real estate website Trulia, which showed that “the share of households renting increased from 36.1% in 2016 to 41.1 percent in 2014.” As might be expected, the proportion of renters is greatest among the largest metro areas, with New York City at 56.9% and all of the top ten metro areas studied over 42.5%. Homeownership percentages may improve again, but until then, the vulnerabilities inherent to renters preparing for and recovering from disasters apply to a greater percentage of the U.S. population.
- There is less financial incentive for both renters and owners of rental property to pursue mitigation measures to increase resiliency to disasters than for homeowners.
- A greater percentage of renters than homeowners are otherwise socially vulnerable to disasters, e.g. low-income, single women, minority.
- Shorter tenure in a location by renters likely means less exposure to public information on preparedness and mitigation, maybe less familiarity with local risks and a smaller social network in the area.
On top of this, fewer renters than homeowners carry insurance, increasing their vulnerability to a wide range of disasters. “A 2016 Insurance Information Institute poll conducted by ORC International found that 95 percent of homeowners had homeowners insurance. Among renters, only 41 percent said they had renters insurance.” I was not able to find specifically the percentage of renters with flood insurance, but it is realistic to assume that fewer renters than homeowners buy flood insurance as well.
So what can be done? It was not as easy as I might have hoped to quickly find good examples or suggestions for reducing vulnerability for renters, but here are some starting points.
- Ensure that your local jurisdiction (city or county) starts developing a disaster housing strategy and plan in advance of the next disaster, and encourage development of one at the state level if one does not already exist. Make sure the planning process specifically addresses renters in the population.
- Consider what your community can do in advance of a disaster to line up incentives for landlords and developers to act quickly to restore affordable rental housing across all neighborhoods and areas within the community.
- Work with all of your whole community partners to develop and deploy public information and outreach campaigns to stress the need for renters to obtain both renters insurance and flood insurance to reduce their personal disaster risk and improve resiliency. Renters can purchase flood insurance. The NFIP supports that. A number of renters insurance and auto insurance providers allow consumers to purchase flood insurance in a package with their other products.
- Also ensure that renters understand what paperwork will be required to obtain disaster assistance from FEMA. For instance, if tenants do not have a formal written rental agreement with their landlord, that lack of a paper trail makes it more difficult for local and federal governments to provide financial relief to help with recovery after a disaster .
Moving forward, emergency managers and policy makers should become more informed about issues that challenged renters recovering from prior disasters, and learn from what has been done before. MDC’s paper “When Disaster Strikes – Promising Practices – Renters,” lists potential strategies and contains some case study examples. “Treading Water: Renters in Post-Sandy New York City” by Make The Road New York in 2014 provides some good quantitative information. They should certainly also follow what happens with the renter/landlord-targeted programs about to be implemented as part of recovery from Louisiana’s 2016 floods. Several programs are being launched to restore the state’s inventory of available, affordable rental housing units, including:
- The Multifamily Restoration Gap Program, which will make $38 million in loans available for development of multifamily housing with units priced at affordable rental rates
- The Louisiana Permanent Supportive Housing program, which subsidizes rental housing for persons with disabilities
- The Restore Louisiana Neighborhood Landlord Rental Program, which will provide $36 million in loans for repairs to flood-damaged rental properties, as well as in-fill of vacant property, in residential areas
- The Rapid Rehousing Program that helps flood survivors, including renters, obtain housing quickly.
Renters are a significant and growing percentage of our communities. Until they recover within the community, the whole community will not have recovered. Taking action to increase their preparedness and plan for their recovery will help improve the resilience of the entire community.
Author: Gary Scronce, Director of Preparedness Programs, IEM
This article was originally published in the IAEM Bulletin, Vol. 34, No. 6 June 2017.
 The Long Term Recovery of New Orleans’ Population after Hurricane Katrina, Elizabeth Fussell, Am Behav Sci, September 2015
 FEMA (2005). “Escambia County Long-Term Recovery Plan.”
 U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Current Housing Unit Damage Estimates: Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. 2006 Retrieved from: www.huduser.org/publications/pdf/GulfCoast_Hsngdmgest.pdf
 “The State of the Nation’s Housing 2015,” Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, June 24, 2015
 “The Steady Rise of Renting”, The Atlantic CITYLAB, Richard Florida, Feb 16, 2016
 Burby, R. et al. (2003). The tenure trap: The vulnerability of renters to joint natural and technological disasters. Urban Affairs Review, 2003, 39, p.32.
 When Disaster Strikes – Promising Practices – Renters, MDC, Inc.
 When Disaster Strikes – Promising Practices – Renters, MDC, Inc.