Hurricanes can increase inequality in the US – but not in the way you think

Hurricane Irma hits Florida, 2017. Image: Getty.

Hurricane Lane, which last year drenched Hawaii with four feet of rain, is a reminder of the devastation hurricane season can bring.

Only one year earlier Hurricane Harvey ravaged Houston, followed closely by Irma and Maria, which left a trail of destruction across Florida and Puerto Rico. Despite the private and government aid provided after these disasters, thousands continue to struggle even today.

However, not everyone is struggling. In fact, some actually benefit economically from these extreme weather events.

In a new study that I co-authored with James Elliott, a fellow sociologist at Rice University, we found that populations that are privileged in terms of education, race or homeownership gain wealth in the aftermath of natural disasters, exacerbating already wide economic inequities.

Not only that, how the government delivers aid is partly to blame.

Disasters on the rise

Natural disasters from hurricanes to wildfires are on the rise, both in terms of frequency and severity.

And they take a heavy toll. In 2017 alone, the United States suffered $260bn in direct damages from natural disasters. While that’s a devastating figure, it fails to encompass the full extent of the impact – such as a loss in income or uncovered expenses such as medical bills – that can last for months and even years after cleanup begins.

Previous research has shown the aftermath of disasters is more devastating for less privileged residents as they are more likely to lose their job, have to relocate and pay higher rents due to reduced housing availability.

In our recent paper in the journal Social Problems, we found that the effects are even more profound: white people, the highly educated and homeowners actually improve their relative financial situation after a disaster, while African-Americans, those with less education and renters are worse off compared with their peers.

Whites make gains while others lose

We combined nationally representative data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics on nearly 3,500 families with government figures on natural hazard damages, Federal Emergency Management Aid and local population demographics in every U.S. county.

We then explored how extreme natural disasters influenced changes in family wealth from 1999 to 2013. Throughout our analysis, we controlled for race, education, age, homeownership, family status, residential mobility as well as neighborhood and county demographics with the aim of comparing households that were similar. We also only compared families who started out with similar wealth in 1999.

Overall, we found a surprisingly strong correlation between the scale of damage a county experienced and an increase in average wealth. That is, people who lived in counties that suffered extreme disasters tended to accumulate more wealth over the period than those who lived in mostly unaffected parts of the country. And the more damage a county experienced, the more pronounced the relative gains in wealth.

Greater wealth, however, was not experienced by everyone. Using a statistical technique called interactions, we were able to see how these changes affected different segments of the population depending on race, education and homeownership.

First, we considered the effects of race and found that whites who lived in counties that experienced extreme natural disasters accumulated $100,000 more wealth than their peers with similar characteristics who did not.

For people of color, on the other hand, this effect was reversed. Specifically, black residents living in disaster-prone counties lost $46,000 in wealth compared with their counterparts elsewhere. And Latino residents in affected counties lost $101,000 relative to similar peers.

In other words, while whites benefited financially by living in areas hit by hurricanes and other disasters, people of color were clobbered.

We then examined the impact of education, holding other factors constant. We found that higher levels of education were also associated with a tendency to benefit from natural disasters, while those with less experienced devastating losses.

Finally we focused on homeownership. Similarly, our results showed that those who owned emerged a lot better off than those who rented.

Our findings suggest that natural disasters are worsening wealth inequality, especially along racial lines. For example, in Monmouth, New Jersey – a New York City suburb that experienced the most natural disaster damage in the U.S. from 1999 to 2013 – $111,000 of the increase in the white-black wealth gap during the period can be attributed to the impact of the disasters.

This map visualises these rising inequalities across the largest metropolitan areas.


FEMA aid plays a role

This evidence is depressing in its own right. Yet, what is arguably even more disturbing is Federal Emergency Management Aid is further exacerbating these inequalities.

FEMA aid is distributed to mitigate the negative repercussions of hazards. In the best of worlds this federal assistance would reduce inequality – or at least curtail its expansion. What we found is quite the opposite.

Unlike what you might think, FEMA aid is not distributed solely based on damage or need. In fact, when we compared the amount of natural disaster damage in counties across the U.S. from 1999 to 2013 with how much aid FEMA allocated to them, the correlation is weak. This suggests factors other than need, such as politics, are primarily driving FEMA aid decisions.

However, statistically, this means we can isolate the effect of FEMA aid from natural hazards. When we did this, we found that FEMA aid also exacerbated inequalities. In New York County, for example, which received nearly $8bn in FEMA aid from 1999 to 2013, we found that $105,000 of the increase in the white-black wealth gap is attributable to FEMA aid.

In short, much like natural disasters themselves, FEMA aid is exasperating wealth inequality.

Lingering questions

The obvious question after all this of course is why?

In this particular study, our aim was to identify the patterns of inequality and thus we are unable to specify the reasons why natural disasters and FEMA aid are exacerbating inequality.

That said, we do know from previous research that privatised aid as well as community reinvestment efforts are disproportionately concentrated in privileged communities, especially those that are white and middle-class.

Given the increasing frequency of natural disasters and their role in exacerbating wealth inequality, it is imperative that the U.S. reconsiders its responses to them. Immediate recovery aid is essential but equally important is ensuring this aid does not worsen entrenched inequities.

The Conversation

Junia Howell, Professor of Sociology; Rice University Kinder Institute Scholar, University of Pittsburgh.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.