Building Affordable Housing to Weather Disasters

Resiliency is especially critical for those who have fewer choices of where to live, according to C. Meade Rhoads of The NHP Foundation.

C. Meade Rhoads, Jr.

Last week’s devastating damage wreaked by Hurricane Ian as it ripped through Florida reminds us of the fragility of much of our nation’s housing stock, particularly affordable housing.

As we’ve seen more and more often in the past decade, housing that was built years ago falls victim to the more perilous and frequent storms, fires or other disasters we are experiencing. NHPF is often the recipient of state and local funds proffered to rebuild more resilient housing in markets such as Houston, after such events wield their power.

Based on conversations with experts in all corners of the affordable housing universe, NHPF has developed recommendations to help builders and developers get ahead of the next calamity as well as provide safeguards for non-natural disasters, such as financial downturns or unprecedented health crises.

First, it is important to note that certain policies and trends of the past decade, bracketed by natural disasters, have exacerbated housing vulnerability for lower-income individuals and households. Given this landscape, affordable housing advocates see the following recommendations as part of a blueprint to creating stronger housing.

We took a look at what changes must occur on the construction side. It is critical when preserving affordable housing or embarking on new construction, to provide these safeguards:

  1. Up-rating the structural design from the regional code-required bare minimums. When building in a geographic region of the United States that is currently in a seismic zone, the developer or owner or design team can direct the structural engineer to design the building to withstand the lateral forces of the next higher seismic zone. If building codes (or self-imposed design thresholds) were to require structures to withstand hurricane-force sustained winds, storm surge and flooding, there will be less loss of life and property. To “over-design” is to design for the future.
  2. Thoughtfully designing the exterior envelope of a building to withstand and shed wind-driven excessive rainfall. In toughening up the first line of defense against water infiltration, the building’s interior materials as well as the occupants all benefit. The building’s exterior material assemblies need to be specified with careful attention to their manufacturer limitations. For example, water infiltration can be mitigated at exterior residential unit balcony doors as well as unit entry doors that lead directly to the exterior. Another element to keep a watchful eye on is assemblies factory finished or painted with “dark” colors or ones that do not have sufficient overhang protection, since they may void the manufacturer’s warranty due to heat gain issues. While we may appreciate the aesthetics, there are certain practicalities that should not be ignored in order to enhance a building’s resiliency.
  3. Incorporating a few different forms of electrical back-up power. Diesel generators, with a limited supply of tanked fuel, and natural gas generators, all carry a hazardous risk and are often cost-prohibitive. Battery banks, or “power walls”, stored on site, often charged by rooftop photovoltaic panels, can provide safe building-wide power for days after a storm-induced grid-wide power outage. New buildings designed to include this self-sufficient system, as well as retrofitting existing building with such systems to give residents the best options for surviving catastrophic events is recommended. Upgraded technology standards of energy consumption and conservation, such as solar panels, solar-fed batteries, electrical and solar-powered car charging stations all multiply each other as additional lines of defense for residents during emergency events.
  4. Engaging specialists. The retaining of experts including waterproofing consulting and testing agencies, civil and structural engineers, 3rdparty inspectors, etc. enables builders to go beyond industry standards of construction in climate-challenging geographical locations. Also key is to provide an extensive review of any conditions that persons with disabilities may face during emergency and strive to provide all residents equal access to areas of refuge and safety.

It is important to note that, while all of those approaches increase initial capital outlay, if we can reframe how we view construction costs and capital expenditures in the area of resiliency, say to be more along the lines of an “insurance premium” that many of us pay for our health, our possessions, our vehicles, and our own residences, then the long-term benefit and peace of mind will always pay back in dividends.

Policy-Level Reinforcements

We also looked at innovative ways those on the policy side could provide measures to ensure more resilient housing is built and more people can access it. These include creation and expansion of automatic stabilizers such as making the Tax Credit Exchange Program permanent to facilitate the exchange or return of unused tax credits for cash grants in the event the LIHTC market should bottom out, as occurs during severe economic downturns.

Alternatively, automatically increasing allocations of housing vouchers when unemployment rates cross a certain threshold or a debilitating disaster causing displacement occurs, would inject much needed capital into affordable housing markets while supporting residents in a timely fashion. Such automatic stabilizers can be tailored to fit the needs of all stakeholders in the ecosystem while side-stepping the often arduous congressional approvals needed for fresh legislation to address individual crises.

Experts would also like to see policy shifts at the local level that would enable more production and preservation of affordable housing per the chart below:

As we have all come to learn, it is no longer a question of if the next cataclysmic event will occur, it is when. Dedicated, committed preparedness from government, developers, states, cities and individuals will make all the difference to the future of resilient housing.

C. Meade Rhoads, Jr., is vice president, Construction Management, NHP Foundation.

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