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Tenants: An overlooked vulnerable population in disaster research and recovery

Image by Alexis Merdjanoff, SRL.

Image by Alexis Merdjanoff, SRL.

Right now they’re in the process of fixing all the apartments because anybody who lived on the first floor totally lost everything and they completely gutted out everything and they rebuilt every apartment which looks beautiful but I would never take one — because I know what happened. I wouldn’t take an apartment back on the first floor.

— Resident of Coney Island, interviewed by SRL on March 4, 2013

Hurricane Sandy destroyed or damaged 305,000 housing units in New York City.[i] Local officials were tasked with finding temporary housing for nearly 40,000 residents, a formidable undertaking in an area with miniscule vacancy rates and soaring rents. While widespread housing damage from a disaster has happened before in the United States—most notably the Loma Prieta earthquake (1989), Hurricane Andrew (1992), The Mississippi River Flood (1993), the Northridge Earthquake (1994), Hurricane Floyd (1999), and Hurricane Katrina (2007)—never has a disaster affected an area so heavily occupied by renters.  Almost 70 percent of New Yorkers – double the national average – rent their homes. Yet, they are an often overlooked vulnerable population in disaster response and research.  How has this population fared in Sandy’s tumultuous aftermath?  And what can we learn from the experiences of renters affected by Hurricane Katrina that can help tenants in New York City recover?

It was over seven years ago that Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast leaving behind a path of destruction that made it the costliest disaster in U.S. history.  In the time since, many lessons have been learned, including the unique problems faced by renters after a disaster.  Many renters in New Orleans discovered that they had few legal rights.  Some were told that they had to keep paying rent on their damaged units if they wanted to stay put.[ii]  Others reported that landlords told them their apartments were uninhabitable, only to discover that their units had been remodeled to be leased out again for a higher price.[iii]  In the case of public housing residents in New Orleans, many of their buildings were demolished in order to make way for high-priced and mixed-income rentals.[iv]  For the most part, renters were not able to choose whether to repair or rebuild their homes, instead finding themselves at the mercy of their landlords.  And because of the limited reconstruction of affordable rental options, renters who wanted to return to New Orleans after the storm had to find themselves new housing in a tighter market and with higher rents.  The lack of available and affordable rental dwellings in metropolitan-area New Orleans cost many residents not only their physical homes, but even the chance to return to their original neighborhoods and communities.

Renters’ difficulties result not just from market forces, but the confusing legal framework as well.  For some renters, it is unclear whether they are responsible for continuing to pay rent if their unit was structurally damaged or if they have been without heat, hot water or electricity for an extended period of time. What if they want to move? Can they expect their deposit to be returned? Are they legally allowed to break their lease without financial repercussions?  To further complicate matters of disaster recovery, renters are unlikely to have any kind of insurance, including renters and flood insurance. While insurance companies argue that renters’ insurance is reasonably priced (around $100 per month) only 34 percent of renters have it.[v]  Also, regular renter policies do not cover flood damage.  For that, renters have to get separate insurance only offered through FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program. Landlords may have insurance that covers the building structure but without renters’ insurance and flood insurance, many tenants affected by Sandy’s floodwaters are likely to encounter significant obstacles recouping funds for damaged belongings.

Lastly, it is important to consider that not all tenants have formal written agreements with their landlords.  Some may have leases in their names but others may have leases in someone else’s name or simply have a handshake agreement with their landlord.  Such variation, common in a city like New York, causes tremendous difficulty when requesting money from FEMA.  If there is no paper trail the local and federal governments are unlikely to provide financial relief.  Advocacy groups, policy makers, and government officials must attempt to account for such variation in future disasters so that all affected tenants are given the opportunity to recover.

To a frightening extent, renters in New York are facing the same grim circumstances as they did in New Orleans.  That’s bad not just for New York City, but for the country as a whole, since in general the percentage of tenants is growing.  The latest Census figures show that 35.4 percent of Americans are renters, which is up from 34.1 percent in 2004.  In large metropolitan areas like New York City (69 percent), Los Angeles (61.8 percent), Chicago (55.1), and Houston (54.6 percent) renters far outweigh homeowners.  As the share of renters across the country grows and the severity and frequency of extreme weather increases, now is the time to buck the trend when it comes to renters and disaster recovery.  Hurricane Sandy provides the next opportunity to give tenants a prominent voice in disaster recovery and prepare for the unique experiences of tenants post-disaster.  It’s not too late to achieve a different outcome—important work is being done by non-profit groups like Make the Road who are tracking the problems faced by tenants, including displacement, cost of home repairs, changes in rent, and health status post-Sandy.  SRL calls for further research and response like this to take this group into account in both disaster relief, in community resilience work, and when “building back better.”

Alexis Merdjanoff is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at Rutgers University, with research interests in social disruption, housing, health, and inequality.

[i] Newman, A., 2012. Hurricane Sandy vs. Hurrcane Katrina. New York Times, November 27, 2012. (accessed 01.11.13).

[ii] Thomas, G., 2005. Market putting squeeze on renters. The Times-Picayune, October 12, 2005. (accessed 01.16.13).

Wishnia, S., 2006. No Room for Renters: Post-Katrina New Orleans Report. The Indypendent, June 16, 2006. (accessed 01.16.13).

[iii] Associated Press, 2006. Low-income Katrina Victims Face Eviction. MSNBC 18 April, 2006. (accessed 01.15.13).

[iv] Reckdahl, K., 2008. Many displaced renters remain on their own, awaiting Katrina aid. The Times-Picayune, October 29, 2008. (accessed 01.11.13).

[v] PRNewswire, 2013.  Majority of Renters Are Uninsured; Renters Insurance Can Provide Important Financial Protection This Hurricane Season.  PRNewswire (accessed 10.17.2013).

One Comment
  1. While everyone should sympathize with the plight of renters, I’m suspicious of attempts to assert their “rights” in every case. If they have no written agreement, they have waived their rights. They and their landlords are at least skirting the edges of the law. Conversely, if they have a lease they should be afforded legal protection against at least some of the landlords’ chicanery.

    But here we come up against one of the biggest problems in this arena. State laws governing rentals vary from state to state (and sometimes from city to city within states). Renters have many fewer rights in Louisiana than they do in NY. Based on my personal knowledge of these laws, they generally try to strike a balance between the landlord’s right to make a profit and to avoid undue damage to the property they own and the tenants’ rights to a sanitary and affordable living space that is reasonably maintained. In NY, that balance is skewed much farther toward the tenant than many other places. It is difficult for a landlord to get rid of an undesirable tenant there, and most rents are controlled. The temptation to use a disaster as a game changer must be nearly irresistible particularly in tough economic times.

    So what should we do? I suggest we proceed like two porcupines mating – very carefully. These are exceptional circumstances, and – although it’s a cliche – exceptions make bad law. However, let me suggest some general principles we ought to follow.

    First, recognize that this is not a problem that can be solved at the federal level – tenants rights vary across the country, and equally importantly, the hazards faced by communities also have to be considered. Earthquakes and wildfires are not the same as hurricanes and floods; remedies for renters in Wyoming may not work for those in NY.

    Second, don’t demonize the landlord. There are good and bad tenants and landlords. The good OF BOTH need to be protected from the bad. That means striking an equitable balance.

    Third, figure out how that balance might be altered – might have to be altered – when the threats inherent to a particular geography – wildfires in hills above San Diego, earthquakes in Memphis, hurricanes in Miami – cause a disaster.

    Fourth, empower the states (which administer the Stafford Act and many other forms of federal disaster assistance) to make the determination of how to strike the balance after a disaster. Washington can’t do it (and certainly not well – see the implementation of the ACA!). But the states know their own laws and their own circumstances and are best situated to make the fairest decisions.

    And finally, be humble. Recognize that this kind of balancing of rights is a sort of wicked problem. Take small steps and look at the impacts, then redirect the course. Draconian policies to provide “relief to renters” may reduce the incentives to landlords to rent. And thus, with the best of intentions, we may actually do more harm than good.

    Community resilience is all about learning and adaptation. But successful adaptation has to be based on drawing the correct conclusions from what’s happened. We have very little evidence to indicate how to adapt: so while we should act, we should do so very carefully, recognizing that our good intentions could actually make the situation worse.

    October 23, 2013

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