Friday, August 9, 2013

Renters vs Owners

Disasters indiscriminately destroy whatever is in their path; its unbiased destruction puts many on equal footing regardless of socioeconomic status. While it's true that vulnerable populations tend to be disproportionately impacted by disasters, a flood doesn't care how much money you make, and where a tornado touches down has nothing to do with the strength of your investment portfolio. So if the damage caused by these community altering events doesn't discriminate, why do we when we respond?

Look pretty similar to me
Once the dust settles, the rush is on to cleanup and get back to the new normal; however, it's during response/recovery activities that something strange happens, organizations will choose to help one family over another. Of course every organization has the right to determine how they prioritize need based on their mission, but the result is that some families don't receive assistance as quickly because they rent and don't own their homes.

Now when I say "help," I refer to the cleaning and debris removal that needs to be done following an event. I understand that renter's have every opportunity to buy insurance for their belongings, but because they don't own the property, they are seen differently in the eyes of some response organizations.

This differentiation has to do with three factors:
  1. Liability. Finding the property owner to get a release signed so volunteer groups can safely and legally work on the property.
  2. The perception that Rental Properties are Income Properties and as such it is the responsibility of the landlord to take care of their tenant needs--not voluntary resources.
  3. Slumlords / Absentee Landlords. There is a general reluctance to help those individuals continue to profit from their questionable business practices.
There that word is again...who knew trying to help people could be so litigious. In order for groups to use Volunteers, they need to ensure that everyone on site has signed a release of liability and that the homeowner has signed one as well. Oftentimes trying to find and schedule a time when the landlord can meet to sign the necessary paperwork is difficult if not impossible, which is why many renter's are passed over.

Income Properties
Rental properties are income generating properties, this is true, and a myopic view in my opinion. Just like there are butcher's and accountants, there are landlords, people who make a living off renting property. When someone who has several rental properties in a community and all of them are impacted, two things happen: 1) The livelihood of the landlord is put at risk and 2) There are fewer housing units in that community for displaced people to go. 

This is a difficult situation; based on my experiences I've noticed that undocumented families tend to live in units where absentee landlordism is usually the a result, a lot of help that could be given is not because of fear on part of the family and a reluctance on the part of organizations to help a landlord who clearly has no interest in upkeep on their properties.

While renter's are not completely without options, with SBA providing low interest rate loans up to $40,000 to help repair or replace damaged personal items, it still doesn't address the hurdles renter's face in order to receive assistance following disasters.

If a community has surplus rental units available, the issue of re-location for many renters can be dealt with; however, what happens to renters and homeowners in a community like Minot, ND? Minot suffered a critical housing shortage before flooding impacted their community in 2011 displacing the majority of the town. A real consequence of a scenario like this can be that the fabric of a community can dissolve due to families moving to other states and areas where housing stock is available. In the case of Minot, FEMA built temporary housing units, but the lack of housing in rapidly growing communities is a real concern given the challenges renters face when trying to recover from disaster.

I feel that this is something that communities don't realize will be an issue until it's too late, but am unaware of it being a part of the larger community resilience conversation. Regardless of who holds the deed, those four walls and a roof provided more than just shelter for a family, they provided stability and a base to grow this 'whole of community' movement. And while I don't have a clear idea of the steps that need to be taken to bring clarity to this issue, I hope that the groups who work in homes regardless of ownership status continue to do so, as they are providing a great service to help communities fully recover.

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