Opinion

Affordable Housing Needs to Be Built to Withstand Natural Disasters

The devastation Hurricane Dorian caused in the Caribbean and the harm it provoked across the United States’ eastern seaboard is a somber reminder of the damage we now expect during hurricane season (which, unfortunately, is just halfway over). Dorian formed almost two years to the date of the landfall of Hurricane Harvey, one of the costliest natural disasters in United States history. In Texas alone, roughly 300,000 structures were damaged or destroyed, with total property damages estimated at $125 billion. Like most natural disasters, Dorian and Harvey tend to hit low- and moderate-income families the hardest — families who, consistent with research by the federal government, were more likely to live in homes built in flood-prone areas or areas not protected from flood risk and, consequently, suffered more damage than residents in higher-income neighborhoods.

We know we can expect more frequent and more intense natural disasters in the future and that some will face a harder recovery than others. Disasters strike with both a physical and a financial shock, and only about four in 10 Americans can afford to cover a $1,000 blow with savings. That’s about one-third of the average Federal Emergency Management Agency-verified (not actual) losses post-Harvey. The consequences of natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey for people on the poverty line demonstrate why disaster resilience must be part of our solutions to affordable housing challenges. Policies seeking to promote affordable housing must ensure the creation and preservation of homes that minimize impacts to their residents and their property from natural hazards.

Both proactively combating the impact of these disasters and promoting housing affordability begins with building codes. In January 2019, a study by the National Institute of Building Sciences found that up-to-date model building codes save $11 for every $1 invested through earthquake, flood and wind mitigation benefits. FEMA’s current Strategic Plan highlights the fundamental role that up-to-date building codes have to play in disaster resilience and the promotion of public safety and property protection. The adoption and application of modern building codes by developers and municipalities is the most straightforward protection for low- and moderate-income communities in the face of disaster. However, more than two-thirds of communities facing hazard risk use out-of-date codes.

Twice last year, Congress and President Donald Trump passed laws that incentivize the adoption and application of modern model codes through enhanced federal cost shares for post-disaster rebuilding, new grants for states and localities both pre- and post-disaster and by making pre-disaster mitigation grant applicants more competitive based on their adoption of up to date model codes. The Department of Housing and Urban Development just announced $6.9 billion in mitigation funding that promotes the development and implementation of modern and resilient building codes. One key to this largely unheralded bipartisan success story is a shared recognition that the adoption and application of the latest building codes not only saves taxpayer dollars on post-disaster rebuilding, but also, per the NIBS study, protects property ($7 billion saved) and reduces insurance costs ($1 billion) – all of which contribute to more well-designed, resilient affordable homes.

Some have contended that building regulations contribute to affordability challenges and it’s true that exclusionary zoning practices can significantly curtail affordable production and increase housing costs for communities. But building codes aren’t zoning regulations. Contemporary research continues to show that modern model building codes have no appreciable implications for a home’s purchase price.

We urge the White House Council on Eliminating Regulatory Barriers to Affordable Housing to support more uniform adoption of up-to-date building codes as a tool to advance housing affordability. A more unified code landscape would help minimize construction cost through more consistent construction requirements — allowing greater efficiencies for builders, manufacturers and designers. Uniform adoption of modern model building codes is one of the easiest, most cost-effective ways to address our nation’s affordable housing shortage. The benefits of consistent codes are clear and will ensure that we have safer and more resilient homes, schools, workplaces, and childcare and healthcare facilities.

While it is vital that we tackle affordable housing challenges for American families, building cheap homes that will collapse in the face of any event, from minor flooding to historic disasters like Hurricanes Harvey or Dorian, is not the way to do it. All families deserve well-built homes they can afford, as well as the peace of mind that comes with knowing that their home can survive a natural disaster without bankrupting them. To protect families across the country, it’s vital that we take these steps before the next hurricane hits.

Marion Mollegen McFadden is the senior vice president of public policy and senior adviser for Resilience at Enterprise Community Partners. Ryan M. Colker is the executive director of the International Code Council’s Alliance for National and Community Resilience and a vice president for Innovation at the Code Council.  

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