Researchers focus a lot of attention on how disasters such as hurricanes and floods affect people’s housing in the United States.
But a new national study found that housing is also important before disasters happen: People with homes not meeting federal quality classifications and those who are housing insecure tend to be less prepared to face natural calamities.
“Housing security and quality are vital for people to be better prepared for disasters,” said Smitha Rao, lead author of the study and assistant professor of social work at The Ohio State University.
Results showed that households facing housing insecurity – those behind on their payments for rent, mortgage or utilities – scored lower on a scale of disaster preparedness than those that were housing secure – even if the occupants had similar income and education.
“Clearly, a precarious housing situation can make it harder for families to be ready when disaster strikes,” Rao said.
The study was published recently in the journal Global Environmental Change.
The importance of preparedness has never been greater in the United States. Between 2011 and 2019, the United States experienced 119 weather and climate disasters with damages exceeding $1 billion.
While concerns around disasters and extreme weather events have risen, fewer than 40% of Americans have an emergency plan in place, research shows.
This study was designed to examine how a variety of social and structural vulnerabilities – from socioeconomic and minority status, and household composition to housing quality and housing insecurity – were related to disaster preparedness, Rao said.
Further, these vulnerabilities do not occur in isolation and some of these, when taken together, often have compounding consequences, she said.
Data for the study came from the 2017 American Housing Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The 29,070 representative households in this study were located across the country.
Disaster preparedness was measured by asking participants if they had nine essential safety elements available, including nonperishable food, an evacuation plan, emergency kit, reliable transportation and financial resources.
Overall, 57% of the population was not prepared with food, water, emergency funds and transportation. About 18% were classified as housing insecure because of an inability to pay rent, mortgage or utilities.
Results showed that those who were housing insecure were less likely to be prepared for disasters. And housing-insecure households relied more on household income for disaster preparedness than did housing-secure households.
That’s a big issue because housing-insecure families tend to have lower incomes, so this is an added burden, Rao noted. Defaulting on these payments is a crucial factor, and one job loss can quickly lead to a household becoming housing insecure. Supporting families at risk of defaulting is a key policy imperative.
Lower-income families in the United States depend on the rental market, and studies suggest that renters have fewer means of being prepared than homeowners, in part because of their more frequent moves.
“Housing stress compounds other stressors such as poverty,” she said. “Safe and affordable housing is a basic right and can help families be more resilient as we see more frequent and intense disasters with the global climate crisis.”
Housing security also interacted with other factors associated with preparedness, such as minority status.
For example, Black-headed households that were housing secure had a 40% predicted probability of being prepared for a disaster, compared to 30% of those who were housing insecure. For white-headed households, being housing insecure dropped the predicted probability of being prepared from about 43% to 40%.
“Overall, being housing insecure exacerbated the effects of many other sources of vulnerability – such as minority status and income – on preparedness,” Rao said.
The research also found that households with older adults were able to maintain their preparedness even when they were housing insecure, as opposed to those who did not have older adults at home, pointing to the need to focus on this oft-forgotten demographic, Rao said.
“Maybe it points to their prior experience or embeddedness in the community,” she said. “In any case we need to focus on older adults as a vulnerable yet significant group that can be an important piece of the puzzle.”
The study also found that where people got their disaster-related information was a factor in whether they were at least minimally prepared. Results showed lower readiness among those who received information from the internet rather than from social networks of friends and family.
People with secure housing may find it easier to build the social cohesion and networks associated with being better prepared, Rao said.
She said the results suggest that, in order to protect more Americans from disasters, housing clearly needs to be a priority.
“We found that safe and affordable housing is extremely important in terms of disaster preparedness,” she said. “That is concerning given the current affordable housing crisis in the U.S.”
Co-authors on the study were Fiona Doherty of Ohio State; Samantha Teixeira and Shanta Pandey of Boston College; and David Takeuchi of the University of Washington.