Consider: who would be most at risk from natural disasters or housing insecurity in your community? How can you help change that? How can your community build collective resilience?
The remains of Hurricane Ida clobbered New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania early this month, killing 43 people with record-breaking flooding, including over a dozen in New York City. (Time). This inundation was unprecedented — Mayor Bill de Blasio called it a “historic weather event” (Inquirer). Catastrophic acts of nature seem beyond human control, but the tragic deaths in New York also stem from housing inequality and environmental racism in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it was likewise an act of nature. But Black residents were more likely to live in low-lying areas close to the water and a majority did not have a car with which to escape (New Orleans Tribune), so low-income Black people were the majority of those trapped in the city (Minnesota Journal of Law & Inequality). During the catastrophic winter storm in Texas earlier this year, the power stayed on in Austin’s affluent downtown while poor communities faced rolling blackouts for days (The Guardian).
Almost all of those killed in New York City were living out of basement apartments not up to code. These units also had increased risks of carbon monoxide poisoning and death by fire. But as housing costs balloon, there’s increased pressure on homeowners to rent out basement rooms. Tenants are also pressured to take a relatively affordable room, no matter the risks. Working-class families, often immigrants working in the service industry, live in illegally converted units since “the housing crisis… leads people to live in unsafe conditions in the first place,” according to the Citizen Housing Planning Council’s Jessica Katz (N.Y. Times). Those who perished were largely people of color working in the service industry if not the new “servant economy” of precarious gig work (The Atlantic). Those whom they served — whiter, more affluent New Yorkers — survived.
A housing crisis cuts across all dimensions of urban life. Prohibitive housing costs force people to stay with abusive partners, and domestic violence is a “leading cause of homelessness” for women and children (NNEDV). “The housing crisis puts LGBT+ people in serious danger” as well, “whether that’s forcing us to live in oppressive dysfunctional family homes, or living with strangers who don’t seem to get it” (GCN). Black women are disproportionately affected by evictions (Ms. Magazine), which force evictees to subsequently accept less regulated and more dangerous housing (Huff Post).
And there are a host of environmental problems that plague housing for working-class people of color even before a major storm hits. These include air pollution (Make the Road NY) and proximity to toxic waste sites and landfills. The correlation of communities of color with such hazards is known as environmental racism, the concentration of “disadvantaged populations in substandard housing and compromised communities, where hazardous exposures are much more likely” (NIH). Those with the least social power are more liable to live in sub-standard housing or lose housing altogether. They are the most exposed to toxins, pollutants, housing-related violence, and death (The Conversation).
As sea temperatures rise, hurricanes like Ida will only appear more frequently and intensely (ABC News). The unconscionable expiration of federal unemployment benefits will only increase the number of people living in substandard housing, in their cars, or on the streets (NPR). And the United States is one of a handful of countries that hasn’t acknowledged housing as a human right by ratifying the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (United Nations). It will take community power and collective resistance to fight for both housing and environmental justice — and make sure the tragedies of Ida are not repeated. Groups are taking action for this purpose all across the country. Make the Road New York is organizing tenant power against environmental racism (Make the Road). In Boston, Dorchester Not for Sale (Facebook) is drawing connections between environmental justice and anti-gentrification fights (EHN), as are the 90 member organizations of the Right to the City Alliance (Right to the City). Housing inequality holds members of oppressed and marginalized communities back from the joyful, healthy, and secure lives we should all demand for ourselves and those around us. To survive disasters and crises, we need to build flourishing, equitable communities that can safely shelter us all.