As the Gulf Coast struggles to respond to the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina’s wrath—with some 700,000 Americans displaced and hundreds of thousands of homes devastated—the search is on for an aggressive, innovative, and rapid response to a housing catastrophe.
The good news is, one already exists.
After the 1994 earthquake near Los Angeles, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development mounted an effort that was both successful and replicable. While the scale was smaller—20,000 Angelenos homeless, and over 55,000 residential structures damaged—a consensus approach emerged that brought the federal government, the state, landlords, and the region’s leaders together to solve a massive problem.
The day after the quake, HUD was in L.A. with a plan that put the poorest victims on a path to recovery quickly and humanely. What happened next was unprecedented. Within days, Congress appropriated $200 million to support a HUD plan to provide special Section 8 housing vouchers good for use anywhere in California.
Within a week, the first of 22,000 of the lowest-income displaced families were moving not into trailers and convention centers, but into stable apartments in safer and better neighborhoods than they had left.
And within a month, HUD had conducted a major landlord-recruitment forum to encourage landlords to take in quake victims.
In short, government intervened boldly and effectively in a shattered housing market to help the un-housed rebuild their lives through their own choices.
And now it should do so again. With more than half a million people homeless in the Gulf region, HUD should be funded to distribute 100,000 or more one- or two-year housing vouchers to the neediest of Katrina’s homeless victims, just as it did 11 years ago in Los Angeles.
The gains would be compelling. As much as the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s cash assistance, vouchers would help hundreds of thousands of people quickly. Meanwhile, renewable certificates of one or two years’ duration would buy families real stability for periods long enough to allow them to begin re-building their lives.
Nor do we have to create a new program to achieve these gains. One already exists. Currently HUD’s Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program serves two million American families throughout the country and taps into a broad, capable, and preexisting network of housing agencies and private sector landlords—many located in areas now receiving families evacuated from the flood. With appropriate waivers to shorten administrative procedures and encourage landlords to take in voucher bearers, HUD could again turn its standard program into a powerful, rapid-response variant for use right now along the Gulf Coast.
Yet there is another advantage of such an approach. Employing housing vouchers on a massive scale responds to the crying need to promote residential and economic mobility and end the unacceptably sharp concentration of poverty that has for decades hobbled New Orleans’ long-term prospects.
As the entire world now knows, New Orleans is one of the poorest cities in the United States. But it’s the concentration of poverty—the bunching together of poor families in spatially isolated neighborhoods—that has the most pernicious impact on residents and the city.
Before the hurricane, about one in five poor people in New Orleans, and one in three poor blacks, lived in neighborhoods of extreme poverty with rates over 40 percent—the fifth-highest rate of concentrated poverty in the country. Dozens of census blocks had even higher concentrations.
While many of these families were the working poor—minimum wage workers employed by hotels and restaurants—many more were unemployed. Their neighborhoods—catch basins of poverty that were some of the first inundated in the rising flood waters—had always made it harder for residents to find jobs, because jobs tended to be elsewhere. And they made it difficult to educate their children, since schools and teachers were overwhelmed by the concentration of poor kids in the classroom.
More broadly, this concentration of poverty also crippled the ability of New Orleans to reach its true economic potential, because it stifled market investment, driving away the middle class and draining tax resources.
An infusion of housing vouchers, however, would give displaced residents from the city an opportunity they’ve never really had: to move to places—either near New Orleans or far away—that have plentiful jobs, good schools, and safe streets.
And that may prove critical to New Orleans’ future as well. Supporting households in their quest for better neighborhoods, better jobs, and better schools would aid and abet the reinvention of New Orleans as a place of economically integrated communities with a healthier mix of quality housing, small businesses, and families located there by choice with a wider range of incomes.
In sum, Congress and the Bush Administration have in their belt a housing tool—tried and tested in the Los Angeles earthquake—for remaking the social landscape of New Orleans and improving the lives of tens of thousands of the most destitute Americans across the Gulf Coast.
Will they use it?