To Build Resilient Regions, Pay Attention to Housing

DSC_0472 7.17.2012 | As much of the country suffers under crackling heat and drought, with ranchers culling their herds early for lack of pastures, with corn shriveling on the stalk, and wildfires spontaneously combusting, it’s hard to miss the interconnections of an ecosystem, whether natural or manmade.

The ripple of effects moves right up the supply chain, from the weather to the farm to the prices in the grocery store. The resilience of that chain–how it weathers the stress– depends on its diversity and its overall health. Short one element along the chain and vulnerability increases.

In many ways, the resilience of a metro system works much in the same way.

As BRR member and Urban Institute fellow Rolf Pendall and colleagues note in a new issue brief on metro regional resilience, to build a strong metro region means starting with individual families. Ensuring that the household is not vulnerable is the first link in the chain of resilience. As they write in “The Built Environment and Household Vulnerability in a Regional Context“:

Vulnerability has intrinsic connections with resilience. Vulnerable people are, by definition, more likely than other people to suffer from a shock or strain in the first instance and will have trouble regaining or maintaining pre-shock levels thereafter. Regions composed of large numbers of vulnerable residents, by extension, face greater governance strains than those whose residents have fewer vulnerabilities

Pendall and his Urban Institute coauthors Brett Theodos and Kaitlin Franks argue that metro leaders must improve precarious housing–both the stock itself and the families in them—if they want their region to be resilient.

Precarious housing in this case includes conditions that increase the odds that a family will have to pack up and move for reasons beyond their control, or that strain their budgets and prevent them from getting ahead in any meaningful way. These include overcrowding and high housing cost burdens, for example. The precariousness is often more evident in older and run-down rental units, multifamily dwellings, and mobile homes.

Combine vulnerable housing stock with vulnerable families–such as those in poverty (both personal and concentrated neighborhood poverty), those with disabilities, and with low levels of education–and the problem is akin to a spark on another 100-degree day in the midst of a sustained drought.

Not surprisingly, the authors find that income is the dominant factor in living in precarious housing. Immigrant status also increases risk. Recent immigrants (post-1990) have some of the highest odds of living in overcrowded housing, paying more than 35% of their income toward rent or mortgages (and especially mortgages), and living in multifamily dwellings. They are less likely, however, to live in older rentals.

Hispanics as well are among the more vulnerable. As the authors note, “If Hispanic immigrants do own their houses, they are also more likely than otherwise similar native-born African Americans to overpay, overcrowd, and live in multifamily detached dwellings.”

The authors note that the build-up to the housing crisis put many recent immigrant families at particular risk. Prior to the bubble, many of these families doubled-up in housing while they saved for a down payment. As mortgage criteria loosened, they bought a home. But in the end, the “’cheap’ mortgages often created two highly precarious housing situations (two households overpaying) out of one ambiguously precarious situation (one crowded household). Since the housing crash, many households have responded to the shock by recombining.”

Other factors that increase vulnerability (after controlling for other variables that affect housing choice) include less education, minority status, and renting.

African Americans, for example, are less likely to overcrowd or overpay for their housing, but they are more likely to live in older housing. As the authors note, this might make it harder to build wealth, as older homes have more sudden repairs and necessary upkeep.

One of the main messages in the brief is that, like a hot, dry summer, vulnerability piles on. As the authors write,

“A few vulnerabilities strongly correlate with others; about a third of those in poverty, in particular, have three or more other vulnerabilities, and nearly another quarter have two others. Non–high school graduates, blacks, Hispanics, recent immigrants, and people in single-parent households also have a high incidence of other vulnerabilities that may reduce their resilience from stresses on themselves, their households, or their broader environments.”

From a metro-wide perspective, helping families avoid precarious housing can bolster the resilience of the region. While concentrated poverty and old run-down apartments are still an image of the central city, housing vulnerabilities are spreading out beyond the inner city. Regional leaders would be wise to protect and upgrade housing stock as a way to ensure resilience of both families and the region as a whole.

One route for building resilience, the authors note, is to square housing and transportation policy.

“HUD [the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development] seeks to improve connections between housing policy and transportation policy, recasting excellent and affordable “H+T” bundles as meeting the needs of vulnerable people more effectively than affordable housing alone. And since transportation planning already occurs in a regional context, encouraging metropolitan areas to square their transportation and housing goals can improve the regional resilience of housing.”

In the end, foresight and cooperative, regional planning can ensure that the ecosystem of a metro region remains resilent. As the authors conclude:

“Regions with active, responsive, and appropriate housing policies will likely have greater capacity, develop better mechanisms for forecasting and scenario-building, and meet their housing challenges earlier and more comprehensively. With these elements—capacity, foresight, early action, and comprehensive responses—regions are, in turn, much more likely to reduce the worst impacts of stresses on their most vulnerable residents.”

The brief is the first in a joint series by BRR and the Urban Institute.


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